Finding Redemption

First, a confession. My life plan is to be a hyphenate: writer-director-producer. Yes, that old Hollywood cliché “what I really want to do is direct” applies to me. You might be wondering, “How’s that coming along, then?” Or, if you’re a fellow Buddhist, you might ask, “What action are you taking? What causes are you making?” (Not that you’d necessarily ask in rhyme…)

My producing partner and I have a few scripts, including one that we consider particularly “shovel-ready”-meaning, if we had the financing lined up, we could go into production without further ado. So we’re working on that. Production, like life, turns out to be all about making connections. You never know who’s going to be your angel…not just in terms of financing, but who’s going to be one of the shoten zenjin that gets your production off the ground, makes it run smoothly, makes it result in a movie that people actually want to see.

You can read more about shoten zenjin here: http://www.gakkaionline.net/Imagery/SZ.html . The common translation is “life’s protective forces”, and sometimes even what appears negative and detrimental can end up being a force for the positive in your life. Many of Nichiren Daishonin’s writings refer to the “ten demon daughters” who appear on the Gohonzon; in their unenlightened aspect, they are “evil demons that sap the lives of people throughout the major world system” (The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon), but they have also pledged to “shield and guard those who accept and uphold the mere name of the Lotus Sutra” (The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind).

Which leads up to what was, until late yesterday evening, my most recent job. Not that I’ve been officially called by anyone from the production office. But that meeting that I was supposed to be attending this morning at 9 AM? Didn’t go. The one at 12:30 PM? Not that one either. So what happened?

The whole thing was hinky from the beginning. Not the “is it going to happen” or the “when’s my start date” part…that’s fairly typical in the spinning-plates world of film production. So many aspects have to come together before the “magic” can begin to happen. If it’s not a money or script issue, it’s usually a casting issue. You might be able to make some compromises when it comes to hiring crew, but no one wants to cast a movie with just any actors. It’s that old chemistry thing. Sometimes the financing even hinges upon who’s cast.

In this case, the financing appeared to be in place, the script was undergoing some revisions but was essentially complete, and the casting was in progress. The production wasn’t union yet, but it was going to be. The stars, it seemed, were aligning. I had just finished a job on Thursday and was looking forward to a little recovery time when I got the call to be ready to go to work…maybe tomorrow. Or Monday.

I was relieved when I wasn’t asked to start on Friday. That was my day to not set the alarm. To catch up on…my life. Because when I’m on a job, I devote myself mind, body, and soul. I am dedicated to the success of the project. My own life goes into “routine maintenance” mode. I put all my personal projects aside so that I can concentrate on doing the job for which I’ve been hired. Which means that the clutter accumulates, the laundry piles up, the garden gets neglected, and no writing gets done. Oh, and there’s the sleep deprivation-almost forgot about that.

On Tuesday, I started work. I wasn’t supposed to…because I’m a woman, and the producer (a woman!) doesn’t like having women on set…they’re “a distraction”. Yes. For reals. That’s like busting through a glass ceiling, then immediately having the glass replaced with shatterproof, triple-strength material. Like climbing to the top of the ladder and stepping on the hands of the next person on her way up, then kicking the ladder out from under her. But the man I’ve been working with for twenty years said he wouldn’t do the job without me, and she really wanted him, so…I was hired, with the proviso that I was never to appear on set.

The hinky continued when I found out there was already someone on the job, someone not in the union, and who had been deemed in over his head…by whom, I wasn’t sure. When we met, he told me that he hadn’t been paid for three weeks(!), that he felt unappreciated and disrespected. He told me of wee-hours texts and phone calls from the producer. He told me of other people on the production who’d worked for weeks, then not had their phone calls returned. After hearing all this, I asked him if he really thought the movie was going to be made at all. He said he hoped so…if only for the months of work he’d put into it. I agreed with him that the situation was unfair, assuring him that we were not there to replace him, and that we very much wanted to work with him. I then proceeded to do the job I’d been hired for. I also prayed that he would be treated fairly, and for the success of the production.

But there was more drama to come…at first, our colleague said he accepted what had happened. Then he decided to quit, a decision that he said he hadn’t reached lightly. He told me how important it was to him to be true to himself; to continue was too damaging to his health and to his self-respect. And he’d been offered another job. To make the transition smooth, he offered to stay until start of filming. He didn’t want the producer to know until he was ready to tell her. That was understandable (remember the wee-hours texting?), but put us in an awkward position. We agreed to keep it to ourselves until the end of the week, to give him time to think about it…meanwhile, we kept on with the job.

When he started telling other people he was leaving, the producer had to be told. As expected, she was not happy. More wee-hours texting and phone calls. He decided to stay, as long as his conditions were met. He would accept being subordinate, but he was to be paid as originally agreed. He was to go to the office that afternoon to hash out the details…

…and that was my last day of work, as I found out late in the evening as I was getting ready to go home and upload the latest scouting photos. What happened? I can only surmise, and it doesn’t really matter. I haven’t come to praise this production or to bury it. My choice boiled down to whether I would harbor resentment over this bizarre episode, or whether I’d “be the Buddha” and find/create value from it.

It’s easy to want the best for those we care about, that we like, who have treated us well. But that’s usually not our first response to those who have done us wrong. It can be a challenge not to feel resentment, and to want them to suffer. However, this does nothing to remedy the situation. Responding in kind actually exacerbates it, because instead of elevating their life condition, we lower ours. Any kind of negative emotion corrodes the soul of the person harboring it. It’s like swallowing poison and expecting your enemy to die.

I was determined to find value in what had happened. Redemption, if you will. How was I to do that? I began with a sincere prayer for the happiness of the people involved (squashing that indignant little inner voice that said “they don’t deserve to be happy!”). The wonderful effect of taking this approach is that it’s virtually impossible to hold onto resentment for long. I can’t simultaneously wish someone well and hope for their destruction. As I chanted, I felt any lingering rancor fade away. My karma, at least, was getting an upgrade…

As a fellow Buddhist pointed out recently, taking this view doesn’t mean that we’re doormats. We don’t have to go looking for difficult situations or for people to mistreat us. And when we do encounter them, we don’t roll over whimpering “Yes! Hurts so good! Hit me again!” What’s important is that we bring forth our highest self (Buddhahood) and transform what has all the appearance of evil into something that is good. What that entails is digging as deeply as is necessary to awaken our sense of appreciation (admittedly, not the first thing that comes to mind!), while simultaneously addressing any wrong that has been done. This is not always easy. It’s much simpler just to get angry, or wail “why is this happening to me?”

Self-reflection is a must: not in a “where did I go wrong” way, but more “what is my part in this? What am I meant to change, or to learn?” I thought about it, and I came up with a few things. I didn’t feel as though I had done anything “wrong”, except perhaps taking the job in the first place, so I concentrated on what I had gained (aside from a few days’ pay, which I have not yet received). My biggest benefit was having the opportunity to work with the production designer, whom I had met years ago at my partner’s wedding but never got the chance to know. He’s making the transition to producing, and had been speaking with my partner about the two of them working together. Because of the admiration and respect that developed between us, he’s interested in working with me as well. This in itself made my experience worthwhile, and is a reason for appreciation. (Plus the three of us definitely picked up some tips on how not to be a good producer!)

Another thing I learned, or was reminded of, was to trust my instincts. I had a bad feeling about the job for so many reasons, and it was not unfounded. In retrospect, it’s surprising that it didn’t blow up sooner. Once again I realized how much I’ve come to value trust and integrity. And I was reminded that when it comes to revealing character, actions speak so much louder than all the seemingly heartfelt utterances in the world.

Valuable as these lessons are, though, I’m still expecting to get paid.
***Update: They paid me. I saw the producer, who did not acknowledge my existence. The accountant who gave me the money was someone with whom I’d had a hellish work experience years ago, but he was all smiles and love!

Is Altruism Immoral? Or, To Shrug or Not to Shrug

I saw Prometheus recently (that would be “Ridley Scott’s Prometheus”), and was duly impressed by the plethora of visual effects. Many a reviewer has mentioned the plot holes (see Cleolinda’s typically brilliant “Prometheus in Fifteen Minutes”, for example: http://m15m.livejournal.com/23209.html), so I won’t. Instead I thought I’d examine some of the questions/concepts addressed in the film. Such as the whole idea of immortality, and that a whole scientific space exploration would be privately financed by an old man who didn’t want to die, on the basis that a team of scientists had discovered what appeared to be an important clue as to the origin of the species. I’m not sure what kind of god he was expecting (other than one that would grant him his wish), but Dr. Shaw, the scientist who actually made the discovery, was a Christian with a different agenda. Having lost first her mother, then her father, to an untimely death, she still maintained a degree of religious faith, evidenced by the cross she wore. Both desired to “meet their maker” without having to undergo the usual process.

When it comes to gods, we humans have great powers of invention. Throughout history, in our attempts to understand our origins, we have come up with a god to explain virtually every aspect of existence. The Book of Genesis notwithstanding, we have created them in our own image. (How else to explain their frequent bad behavior?) Our lore is rich with cautionary tales and fables that can be interpreted in many ways, as well as various mythologies that both compete with and complement each other.

Consider the Greeks and their Titans and Olympians…specifically, Atlas, Prometheus, Zeus, and Athena. Brothers Atlas and Prometheus were Titans, who predated the Olympians; Zeus was the head Olympian, and when the Olympians defeated the Titans, Zeus condemned Atlas to stand on the Earth and hold up the Sky, keeping them separated and thus lessening their power. Prometheus had secretly allied with the Olympians, though in light of his future punishment, that didn’t work out as well as he expected. And then we have Zeus, who consorted with Metis, the goddess of crafty thought and wisdom; upon hearing of a prophesy that she would bear children more powerful than their sire, decided to eat her just in case. But she was already pregnant with Athena, who subsequently burst forth from his head, fully grown and loaded for bear (understandably so!). Later she became known as the goddess of wisdom, courage, and other positive attributes.

Or so the stories say…at least some of them. Different cultures had different versions, but we all know people who embody certain aspects of these gods…or in some cases, only think they do. Atlas is the strong, silent type; he shares the epithet applied to Buddha as “one who endures”. Athena is that righteously talented and intelligent woman with anger management issues…don’t ever forget how smart she is. If you don’t agree with her, you must be an idiot. Zeus? What a nasty piece of work he is. Predatory, abusive, power-mad, vengeful, everything you don’t want in a god. And while you may not know anyone who actually ingests his sex partner and/or children, you’ve probably met a few that managed to dominate their unfortunate spouses and family to the extent that they might as well have been engulfed.

That leaves us Prometheus…as in, Greek god, not movie. Smart guy, creative, a little bit of a troublemaker. Created humans, then gave them fire, which made civilization possible. As a Titan, he must’ve seen which way the wind was blowing, so (as previously noted) he sided with Zeus’ gang, the Olympians. But after the fire incident, Zeus punished him by tying him to a rock, whereupon an eagle would eat his liver every day…the liver would grow back, the eagle would return to dine again, etc. etc., until (according to some versions), he was finally freed by Hercules.

So…cautionary tale, would you say? If you must create humans, whatever you do, don’t give them anything to their advantage. Such things belong only to the gods. Let them live and die according to your whim, ignore them for ages; occasionally throw down a thunderbolt or a plague of some kind to thin them out, but do not help them. They do not deserve your protection; they are merely your toys. When you get tired of them, you destroy them, because there are always other toys. You are a god. You don’t need them.

But if you accept the idea that we created these gods in our image, not the other way around, what does the myth of Prometheus tell us? That it’s dangerous to be intelligent, to innovate? That we should not do anything to advance civilization, lest we put our livers at risk? Are we more godlike when we are selfish, only looking out for ourselves, and to hell with everyone else?

That would certainly seem to be the position of one Ayn Rand, who invented her own philosophy to justify such behavior and wrote several books about it and/or based on it. Her magnum opus was Atlas Shrugged, in which she likens the most productive members of society to the Titan Atlas, who bears the ever-increasing weight of the world upon his shoulders. The unappreciative “world”, or the supposedly non-productive members of society, do nothing but “mooch” off of these beleaguered heroes. The remedy she posits is that “Atlas” should “shrug”; “stop the motor of the world” by going “on strike” and disappearing. No more ideas, no more inventions, leaving the idiots behind to see how far they can (not) get along without them.

Okay, it’s a dystopian fantasy, so perhaps it’s a bit much to expect much in the way of realism, but she didn’t even pick the right god! Prometheus was the smart inventive guy; Atlas was the strongman who never had anything to say, but was good at enduring…hardly what you’d consider an intellect or an innovator. But I suppose she couldn’t identify with Prometheus, who evidently felt compelled to risk the wrath of the hardly trustworthy Zeus by helping out his creation…altruistic of him, wouldn’t you say? Rand abhorred altruism, which she defined as “self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.” This definition is typical of her tendency to overreach; it is absolutely possible to be altruistic without immolating, abnegating, denying, and/or destroying the self. It is also not possible for the “self” to exist in isolation; although Rand seems to think that it can, her belief is not borne out in her stories. She conveniently ignores the reality that even though one brilliant person may have an idea, it takes the combined efforts of many to bring that idea to fruition. And without others to make use of the idea, what purpose does it have? Her heroine’s occupation as a railroad executive is indicative of her inability to grasp this reality. The inventors of the first railroads would hardly have gone far without the cooperation of numerous others: the engineers that helped construct the first engines, the laborers who built the rails, the government’s use of eminent domain to provide the lands on which those rails were built, the customers of the goods for which the transportation system was needed. Hardly the work of one “Titan”!

Rand’s argument was that forms of government such as fascism, socialism, and communism were evil, in that they suppressed the human spirit. Unfortunately, her story does not do a particularly good job at illustrating this theory, and her lusty embrace of unfettered capitalism (an “ism” that she found much more to her liking) blinded her to the flaws inherent in such a system. In Rand’s world, all capitalists are good, and all governments are bad, and despite history’s evidence to the contrary, there are still a shockingly large number of people who seem to agree with her. When it comes to the old gods, it’s not Atlas or Prometheus whose behavior she admires…it’s Zeus.

It certainly wouldn’t have been Buddha, since the essence of Buddhism is altruism (though not, of course, as she defined it). The historic Buddha was born a prince, but renounced his heritage to travel throughout India in search of a remedy for the four sufferings of human existence. Then, enlightened, he devoted the rest of his life to sharing his knowledge with as many people as he could. One of the figures in the Lotus Sutra, his highest teaching, is the Bodhisattva known as “Never Disparaging”, who saw the Buddha in everyone, and told them so. Even though there were many people who didn’t want to hear it…so much so they attacked him with sticks, stones, staves, curses, etc., he kept at it. He did take the precaution of moving out of range! Likewise, Nichiren Daishonin risked his life many times by remonstrating with an oppressive government, challenging the religious establishment that perpetuated the notion that laypersons were inherently inferior to the clergy, and spreading his teachings despite being exiled, beaten, and almost beheaded. Were these cases of self-abnegation? Self-immolation? Self-destruction? Self-denial? Hardly. Ultimately they themselves benefited from their efforts to lessen the sufferings of others, even as we have benefited. This is a version of immortality that Rand was evidently completely incapable of understanding. In her world, those who give are only taken advantage of; in other words, altruism is for suckers.

Speaking of suckers…getting back to Prometheus the movie, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. Along with most cautionary tales, it seemed to be mixing its messages. Is it bad to be Promethean, if the risks seem to outweigh the potential benefits? (“ARGHHH! That’s my liver you’re chewing on!”) Is some knowledge better not acquired? And if so, if you don’t know beforehand what such knowledge might be, is it better not to seek knowledge at all? The non-humans of the story cannot be considered “good” by our human standards. Is the “engineer”, the sole remaining example of a being that at least somewhat resembles us and shares our DNA, really our “creator”? Or is there really no creator as such, but simply crude life, as exemplified by the “alien” (that nevertheless seems to require a human host to proliferate)?

Regardless of whether or not we humans were created, whether or not we will someday “meet our maker”, we have within our grasp the ability to control our own destiny because we live. We have the ability to create; we have the ability to destroy, and we cannot, must not, hold anyone else responsible. In Prometheus, the most selfish and least cooperative of the crew are among the first to die. You could, I suppose, take the Randian view that the “self-sacrifice” of the captain and his remaining crew in order to save the humans still on earth was a sucker move, and that the moral act would’ve been to let the clearly more powerful and godlike being carry out its mission of destruction. I suspect, however, that it was intended to be viewed as a noble act, one that proved who the truly superior beings were.

Perhaps the cautionary message of Prometheus is that if we choose destruction, all that evolution and acquisition of knowledge will be for naught. We will have ceded our glorious existence to a lot of big, nasty, slimy, mindless spaceworms that don’t even know how to shrug,

Slander the Destroyer

In the catalog of Super Villains, Slander has an impressive visage (or visages, since slander has so many faces). I’m imagining Slander as an imposing figure: clad in brazen armor, perhaps, standing upon scorched earth, sneering; humanoid (since I doubt there’s a person alive who’s never slandered, at least amongst those who have achieved the power of speech), but insectoid as well, as befits something so pestilential. So maybe it wears the iridescent carapace of a dung beetle, and you can’t really discern its eyes…because that’s the nature of slander. Slander is a coward. Inside that hard and shiny surface is a dark, shriveled thing that feeds on heaps of lies and misery. And the touch of slander is poison…

Um, to dial it back a bit, the legal definition of slander can be found here: http://definitions.uslegal.com/s/slander/ It is “the oral communication of false statements that are harmful to a person’s reputation. If the statements are proven to be true, it is a complete defense to a charge of slander. Oral opinions that don’t contain statements of fact don’t constitute slander. Slander is an act of communication that causes someone to be shamed, ridiculed, held in contempt, lowered in the estimation of the community, or to lose employment status or earnings or otherwise suffer a damaged reputation. Slander is a subcategory of defamation.” However, slander in Buddhism is much, much more encompassing. How many of us have said something negative to or about someone “for their own good”? Perhaps it was even true; at least, we perceived it as being true. Not slander, you might think…but you would be wrong, from a Buddhist if not a legal standpoint.

In his writing “The Fourteen Slanders”, Nichiren, quoting an unnamed scholar, lists fourteen ‘evil causes’, grouping them under the term slander. (To read “The Fourteen Slanders” in its entirety, see http://tinyurl.com/d4koclg. It’s extremely poetic and evocative.) They are as follows: (1) arrogance, (2) negligence, (3) wrong views of the self, (4) shallow understanding, (5) attachment to earthly desires, (6) not understanding, (7) not believing, (8) scowling with knitted brows, (9) harboring doubts, (10) slandering, (11) despising, (12) hating, (13) envying, and (14) bearing grudges.

Well. I think I can accurately state that at one time or another, I’ve managed to cover all fourteen (though probably not all at once)! Some of them seem straightforward enough. Take arrogance: if you read my post “Seeing the Elephant”, in which I discuss the concept of the Ten Worlds, you might gather that arrogance is an expression of the world of Anger. Since we’re talking about evil causes, let’s go with the idea that we’re not dealing with the enlightened aspect of anger. No, this would be the kind of anger that flares up when some complete idiot is clearly incapable of understanding that my reasoned, fact-based argument is far superior to his moronic blathering on the issue. See how easy that was?! That my argument may indeed be correct is not the issue; it’s the attitude I have toward the other person that allows it to become an evil cause, and as long as I have that attitude, the odds are entirely against me being able to change his mind. All I’m doing is convincing him that I’m the jerk/moron/asshole.

Negligence? Why, I can do that too! All it takes is a little inertia…add a soupçon of not caring…a dash of can’t be bothered with that right now…and I’m tripping down the evil paths once again. That friend who called me a few days ago…that thing I was supposed to do for work…that promise I made to myself that I kept for about a week and then decided was too much trouble…again, all too easy. Sigh…

Moving right along to “wrong views of the self”…a Buddhist believes that everyone possesses the Buddha nature. But even if I manage to believe that most other people have that potential for enlightenment, there’s almost always somebody, somewhere, that defies that belief. Maybe it’s the psycho that tortured a dog. Or the bully that makes me sick to my stomach when I think about having to be in the same room with him. Or maybe it’s not another person at all that I have doubts about; maybe…it’s me. Because even though I try really, really hard not to slander other people, and usually succeed, self-slander is so insidious that I often don’t even realize I’m doing it. The little voice that says things like “you can’t do that” “you’re not capable” “failed again-why try?” is the voice of self-slander, and as long as I’m listening to that I can’t possibly believe that I’m a Buddha of unlimited potential. But it’s more than just self-esteem. All the unearned gold stars, blue ribbons, and pats on the back are no substitute for a real sense of accomplishment. It’s no less wrong to have an inflated sense of self; for example, my inner voice might just as well be saying things like “you’re so smart, you don’t have to study” “those people have nothing to teach you” “why should you spend any time with losers like that”. Even the most brilliant among us has something to learn, even if it’s only a sense of appreciation for being so gifted (not that that’s a small thing!).

Shallow understanding…been there, done that. Wore out the T-shirt. Easy to be facile, isn’t it? As Nichiren says, “To accept is easy, to continue is difficult. But Buddhahood lies in continuing faith.” I can’t count the times that I’ve heard some bit of wisdom and thought, “Yeah, sure, I get that”, only to realize later (when I could actually apply it to my own life) that I had only the most superficial grasp of its meaning.

Attachment to earthly desires…oh, I have lived that one. I hasten to point out that there’s nothing wrong with desire! In fact, Nichiren wrote a letter to one of his foremost disciples, the samurai Shijo Kingo, explaining the principle found in the Lotus Sutra that “earthly desires are enlightenment”. Clearly, the problem lies not in the desires per se, but in the attachment. I haven’t gone so far as to renounce my faith because I prayed for something (or someone!) that I didn’t get, but…let’s just say I’ve done some stupid things along the way, whilst telling myself “Hey, it’s for my enlightenment!” (See: “shallow understanding”…)

Ah, but what’s worse than shallow understanding? How ‘bout…not understanding? Tough one…I may have thought I was, but wasn’t understanding something at all. Perhaps it’s the Buddhist equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and singing “la la la la la la”…i.e., willfully refusing to listen to what one doesn’t understand, without even attempting to grasp the meaning. I’d like to think I’ve never done that, but I’ve probably done it a time or six. And if I didn’t, I’m sure I managed the next one, “not believing”. They do sound a little like fraternal twins, don’t they? “Meet my twins, Not Understanding and Not Believing…they’re inseparable, these two!” (Again, see: “wrong views of the self”)

If these preceding evil causes seemed somewhat vague or not clearly defined, you’ll love the specificity of the next one, “scowling with knitted brow”. You there with the chonmage hair-you, with the gangsta face-you know what I’m talking about. It’s not so much the expression, it’s the attitude it represents. With roots in the world of animality, it’s the ferocious grrrrrr that says to the world you are not prey; you are predator, to be feared. Problem is, the hard shell of invulnerability that you have created for yourself perverts any kind of normal relationship you may want to have, because you are walling off your own heart. That’s why assassins make bad friends. It took me a long time to discover that real strength beats a show of strength every time.

Harboring doubts…it’s natural to have doubts, isn’t it? It’s a human thing. Anyone who’s ever prayed for something, hoped for something, tried something new, done something (so, just about everybody) has probably had at least a moment of doubt: will it happen? will this work? did I do the right thing? even when the evidence is there to indicate probable success. In the realm of faith, we often venture into what seems like completely uncharted territory; even if our prayers have been answered in the past, the small doubt creeps in…will it work this time? Can I do this? If we have not yet had a successful result, the creeping doubt can gain even more of a foothold; i.e., we harbor it. In doing so, we feed the delusions that blind us until we can no longer see a clear path to our objective. The way to combat this tendency is to uproot doubt like a noxious weed before it has a chance to take hold.

Next up in our list of fourteen slanders is…slander. The reason that slander (as in the legal definition, at least for starters) is such an evil cause is that it is a negation of what a Buddhist professes to believe, which is that all living beings possess the Buddha potential. It is simply not possible to slander someone and simultaneously see him/her as a Buddha. This also applies to self-slander. The same holds true for all the remaining evil causes: despising, hating, envying, and holding grudges. And yet…I’ve done every one of those things. Never intending to make an evil cause, perhaps not even aware of doing so, but…I have absolutely despised, hated, and envied. I have held grudges so tightly you’d think I would have to break something to pry them out of my life. And yet…somehow, when I am able at last to let them go, I become more whole.

Throughout my decades of Buddhist practice, I have often slandered others and myself without even realizing it. Or I have somehow justified it, in the name of speaking out against evil, not realizing that I have made an evil cause myself. Because it is essential to our happiness and that of our fellow humans to recognize and combat evil, we must exercise great care not to commit slander. Slander is ineffective as a weapon against evil, because it is itself an evil cause. In his writing “Earthly Desires Are Enlightenment” (http://tinyurl.com/7noeuxc), Nichiren attributed the persecutions to which he was subjected throughout his life to his past slander of the Lotus Sutra, “It was such an august and precious Lotus Sutra that in past existences I put under my knees, despised, scowled upon in disgust, and failed to believe in. In one way or another, I maliciously ridiculed those who, studying the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, taught them to even one person, and carried on the life of the Law.” (The Law he refers to here is the universal Law of Cause and Effect, not any governmental code or statute.)

And yet, he welcomes the persecutions, because had he not been subjected to them, “I might have remained in the three or four evil paths. But now, to my great joy, I am sure to sever the cycle of the sufferings of birth and death, and attain the fruit of Buddhahood.”

Following Nichiren’s example (even though we probably won’t be attacked with swords and staves, exiled to a remote island where few survive, or almost beheaded, as he was), we should seize any opportunity to eliminate slander from our lives. If we do not, we hinder our own enlightenment, and remain imprisoned by our lesser selves. To put it more succinctly, slander destroys benefit. We can pray and chant till the cows come home, but if we continue to complain, doubt, hate, despise, hold grudges, etc., no matter how much we feel justified in doing so, we undo all the good deeds we have done. We must destroy slander…or slander will destroy us.

P.S. After re-reading this post, I wondered if I’d perhaps conveyed the impression that it was dangerous to say anything that might be construed as the slightest bit critical or “negative”, or that I was espousing the dreaded “political correctness” in order to promote peace and light. Not so! Although all life possesses the Buddha aspect, the sad reality is that certain behavior, particularly on the part of humans, can make it extremely difficult to discern. When we encounter evil, or observe someone headed down a destructive path, it is not slander to speak up. What is important is the intention with which we do so. If we are genuinely concerned with fairness, justice, and (ultimately) the happiness of the person or persons concerned, we do not make an evil cause. But if we speak from arrogance, from ego, or to hurt, we do. Instead of combating evil, we have succumbed to it…we starve our “inner Buddha” when we feed the “slander beast”.

Eye On the Sparrow

I belong to an online book club, which “meets” sporadically. The way it works is that from time to time someone will suggest reading a certain book, a few people will announce their intention to participate in a discussion of it, someone will set a date for the discussion to begin, and anyone who cares to will read the book at his/her own pace, finishing more or less in time for the beginning of the discussion.

There is a contingent that decries the dehumanizing effect of the internet, but as with everything in life, it has its enlightened and unenlightened side. I haven’t ever been much of a joiner, but this “book club” has enabled me to connect with many people from other parts of the world who don’t look, speak, or think as I do and consider them friends, even though I haven’t met them all face to face. So I looked forward to reading the current selection, Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows. I had read a few of Godden’s books in the past and had a vague memory of having enjoyed them; at least, I had no memory of having hated them.

What I didn’t expect was how much I would take to this particular book (I was about two-thirds through it when I thought I’d read ‘just a chapter or two’ at bedtime and found I couldn’t stand to stop reading until I reached the end). Nor did I expect, in view of Godden’s midlife conversion to Catholicism, that I would find it so…Buddhist.

Buddhism, if you recall, holds that all life functions according to a universal law of cause and effect, and that all life is interconnected. None of us is completely separate from anyone else, and neither are we truly separate from our environment. We don’t always believe in or understand this; although we are willing to believe in cause and effect in certain clear-cut cases (we are not surprised when, for example, someone falls down when pushed), but when the effect is not immediately apparent we tend to forget that there is one. Or that it stemmed from some prior cause.

Most (if not all) great literature follows this law; consciously or not, authors show how the destinies of individuals and families are interwoven, and how seemingly insignificant actions can have far-reaching, sometimes tragic consequences. That’s why some stories cannot support a happy ending, no matter how much a reader may have come to care about the characters, and want everything to ‘come out all right’ for them. If the author should try to force a happy ending, well, it feels forced. Dramatically incorrect. Unbelievable. And while we may expect that sort of thing in fairytale romances that end in love and marriage despite containing red flag behavior on the part of one or both parties (usually, but not always, the man) that in real life would more likely result in arrests and restraining orders, it has no place in any story purporting to be true to life.

An Episode of Sparrows does have a more or less happy ending, though not what you might expect. The titular ‘sparrows’ are the noisy flocks of children who throng the street where the rich Miss Chesneys live, and who give them that name. To the younger, more powerful sister, Angela, they are sparrows because they are “cheeky, cocky, and common”. To her older, but sickly and ineffectual sister Olivia, “nothing [is] common”; referencing the Biblical passage “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father”, she is all too aware that although God may not find the sparrows to insignificant to keep an eye on, they always seem to be “falling”-to “accident, illness, sorrow, sudden death”.

It is Angela, relentless doer of Good Works, who deals with the fallen ones. A woman of obviously superior executive ability, she would make a better corporate CEO than a distributor of alms, but as a woman of her time (post WWII) this path is not open to her. (Returning soldiers would have had first priority for jobs; Angela gives up her accountancy and sits on multiple boards of directors instead.) She has little patience with the vagaries of others; she expects everyone around her to fall in line according to her sense of order. Individuality, particularly when it leads to someone stepping out of his/her designated compartment, is distinctly not encouraged. Angela has no superior, and bows to no one else’s judgment. If there is a villain in this story, it is she; but as I was reminded by one of my book club friends, she is not really evil. She believes she is doing good, and no doubt does do good, but from a sense of duty alone. It never seems as though she actually cares about any of those she helps; she seems rather to despise them, whether she would admit to such feelings.

The principle “sparrow” is Lovejoy, a young girl whose second or third rate theatrical mother (it’s hinted she may also be none too respectable) has foisted her onto the Combies, a couple with troubles (mostly economic) of their own. Vincent (as he insists on being called, though his real name is George) is an utterly impractical culinary genius stuck in an area that doesn’t support the kind of restaurant he wants to run; his wife is incapable of reining him in, and also has to cope with the negativity of her spiteful sister, who tells her that Vincent only married her to get their father’s restaurant. The sister, Cassie (perhaps Godden was intentionally evoking the mythological Cassandra?), also unkindly yet ultimately truthfully predicts that despite Lovejoy’s belief to the contrary, her mother has no real intention of coming back for her.

The action that sparks the story’s beginning is Lovejoy’s acquisition of a fallen seed packet. She is not the first to reach it; the delicate Sparkey, another “sparrow” whose mother sells newspapers, gets to if first, but Lovejoy confiscates it from him through the expediency of punching him in the stomach. Lovejoy is not without honor; she would never steal from Sparkey’s mother, who has no assistant and sometimes must leave her stand unattended, trusting her customers to pay. But to someone so impoverished, who has so little of her own and few honest means to obtain any more, anything fallen or discarded is fair game. Sparkey, after all, has a mother who is present and who cares for him; Lovejoy doesn’t even know where her mother is, and the Combies have no money to spare. Her action, however, will not be without consequences.

The story begins with the Misses Chesney investigating the appearance of several deep holes in their garden. It is not theirs alone-it belongs to the enclosed community within the Square-but Angela regards it as hers. Discussing it with several of her neighbors, she concludes that it must have been the work of the street children, who no doubt stole it to sell.

She’s correct in identifying the culprits, but she’s all wrong about the motivation. The barely literate Lovejoy has puzzled out the contents of the packet (after nearly throwing it away), and figures out that the tiny seeds it contains are the source of flowers, which she admires. Thinking about and planning her garden also help ease the pain of her mother’s neglect. Her first arduous attempt at gardening comes to ruin when a gang of boys lead by Tip (who will soon loom large in her life) finds it and destroys it. They find out about it from Sparkey, who desperately wants to be part of the gang; he has no compunction about betraying Lovejoy, especially after that punch to the stomach she gave him. The person who does not betray Lovejoy (although she doesn’t know her yet) is Olivia, who surreptitiously destroys the evidence of Lovejoy’s footprint in the garden soil.

Later we will see Lovejoy stealing money from the church collection box, which appalls Tip; because she has no religious training, and knows nothing about offerings, she does not regard what she has done as a crime. To her the money is simply something she needs, and as it is attainable, she takes it. Of course, stealing is in Buddhism considered a “bad cause”, but in this context it raises questions about the meaning of offerings and who is to benefit from them. Because Lovejoy has no prior connection with the church, she in effect does not exist in its eyes, and therefore is not likely to receive any material benefit from it. Though she is fed and housed, she is rapidly outgrowing the few clothes she has, and she is starved for love and beauty. No one in her immediate circle has any money to give her, and she tries begging and busking to no avail, so her theft is an act of survival rather than one of malice. Even the church is poor; as a sanctuary it barely exists, having been bombed in the war, and funds to rebuild are slow in coming. From a spiritual standpoint, however, it still has much to offer, and if Lovejoy had belonged to it, she might well have been the recipient of the church’s charity.

Not that she would have been interested in charity as such. There are many more characters in the story, and it would take too long to recount the entire plot, but it’s clear that Lovejoy has a kindred spirit in the chef Vincent, whose desire for beauty and perfection overcomes not only his good judgment but his concern for others as well. In her zeal to capture the despoilers of the enclosed garden, it is Angela who engineers what at first will appear to be Lovejoy’s downfall. If she suffered from being neglected, she is no longer overlooked. Caught in thievery, revealed as abandoned, she is forced to accept the kind of impersonal charity that Angela doles out. In Vincent’s case, his stubborn attempts to create a high-end restaurant in an area that clearly cannot support it will bankrupt the Combies, and he does not even recognize opportunity when it appears in the guise of his one steady customer, a lord who offers him a job on his estate. Both Vincent and Lovejoy possess the kind of pride that is said to “goeth before a fall”.

Fortunately, Godden is not interested in sanctimonious sermonizing. If she were, the story might have ended there, and it would be a bleak tale indeed. Instead, she deftly weaves the strands of her characters’ lives together in the way that the lives of human beings interconnect. It is Olivia, the heretofore powerless sister, who “saves the day” in an almost, but not quite, deus ex machina way. Having suggested that she be allowed to adopt Lovejoy, and having that idea promptly quashed by Angela, she realizes that even as she feels herself becoming progressively weaker and more ill that there is something she can actually do to remedy the situation. Dying, she is finally able to achieve what she has not been able to do in life. Her will (which she is careful to make incontestable) provides for Lovejoy, for Tip, for the Combies, and ties their fortunes together so that they must connect if they are all to benefit. Furthermore, she humanizes Angela by naming her a co-executor of the will along with Vincent, the sympathetic police inspector, and Father Lambert. We see this when the Chesney brother, Noel (who had little use for Olivia when she was alive) wants to know what happens if Angela balks at sharing the duty with these others, and the answer is that they will be executors without her. It is this moment of self-realization that is perhaps the best gift that Olivia has ever been able to give to her sister.

I read a review of this book that quoted The New Yorker: “it is a sentimental tale, well told, with an unlikely and entirely satisfactory ending”. I’ll grant the “well told” and the “entirely satisfactory ending”, but I strongly disagree with the “sentimental” and the “unlikely”, the combination of which seem both patronizing and untrue. Olivia’s thwarted life gave her a keen sense of observation and an unusual sensitivity to the passionate longings of others, and she was able to affect their lives in a direct and personal way. It was unfortunate that she has to die to do so, but she died happy, and that is something we all wish for. It’s all too easy to underestimate how our actions can change other people’s lives, much less our own. The best time to find the connections between us, and the best time to become happy, and the best time to contribute to others’ happiness is now, while we’re still alive. Unlikely? Not at all. It’s our choice. We all of us have the power to make it so.

On the Level

I’ve been on a hunger strike all day. Nothing to do with being a Buddhist, of course, any more than setting oneself on fire or divesting oneself of all one’s worldly goods or retreating to a monastery. A Buddhist may do any of those things, I suppose, but as a personal choice, and not because they are required or even recommended in Buddhist teachings.

My hunger strike has to do with my not being able to smell or taste anything. This has been going on for the past three days, off and on (mostly on, alas)…I could taste a little bit of my oatmeal with blueberries breakfast yesterday (oh! the delicate fragrance of the Ceylon cinnamon! the sweetness of bursting blueberries!), and maybe a third of my lunch. Eating the broccoli (which I love, when I can taste it) was as exciting as chewing on damp straw. Today? I had high hopes when I was able to (just barely) detect the flavor of salt. I decided to go ahead with making my hot chocolate. Even if I couldn’t taste it fully, I reasoned, it’s a hot liquid, which may stimulate my lost senses…I was further encouraged by being able to detect (slightly) the sweetness of the honey I stirred into it.

Well, it looked good…it felt good, and it took away the hollow feeling I was getting from having subsisted mostly on water and hot lemon ginger tea for the past 18 hours or so. The lemon ginger tea that I couldn’t actually taste…I could only detect the slightest heat from the ginger. But I can’t say I could taste the hot chocolate at all. I could feel my brain working, trying to fill in the blanks from past experience and visual clues…information stored. Sense memory. The brain did its poor best, throwing out a kind of phantom flavor in place of the real, but compared with really tasting the hot chocolate, poor indeed. That’s when I resolved not to eat again until my senses came back to life.

I know I should eat. It would help eliminate the hollow feeling in my stomach, but without smell and taste, I just can’t convince myself it’s worthwhile. I went into the kitchen and smelled the most pungent things in it—vinegar, onion, scented cleaners, bleach, alcohol. Nothing. Which makes cooking dangerous, as I realized last night when I started a pot on the stove for moq au vin (no coq; one makes do with what one has) and forgot it. Wondering why I’d left the kitchen light on, I wandered in and found the pot smoking away merrily. I hadn’t smelled it burning at all. At that moment I decided to postpone further cooking adventures for the time being.

I’m not mentioning all this merely to complain about the rhinovirus that’s cast a pall and a blight over my life for the past four days, though of course the coughing, sneezing, nasal congestion/runny nose, constant headache and general malaise have been unpleasant enough. I’ve almost worked my way through a family-sized box of tissues, I’ve missed several opportunities to meet with friends, and it’s fortunate that I’m not on a job at the moment, as I’d have had to plead illness or risk infecting everyone I came in contact with. I’ve scarcely been around people at all; I don’t want to be a spreader of The Plague.

No, I thought this was a great opportunity to introduce yet another key Buddhist concept, the nine levels of consciousness. I don’t know why we humans seem to be drawn to numbered lists, but we are. Consider the myriad listings that are continually scattered throughout the media: “eight reasons why men leave”, “5 ways to reduce belly fat!”, “top 10 new restaurants”, “7 circles of hell”, etc. etc. I suppose it has something to do with a desire for order, by which we make sense of what’s going on around us. In Buddhism, for example, we have the concepts of “ten worlds”, “3000 realms in a single moment of life”, “three obstacles and four devils”, and amongst Nichiren’s writings the “Fourteen Slanders” and “The Eight Winds” are two of my favorites. But to get back to the nine levels, the first five levels are none other than our five senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste.

The sixth level, our conscious mind, can be compared to a basic operating system, or a processing unit, because it’s on this level that we respond and act on the information we receive from our senses. The senses get a bad press sometimes, but without them we’re not really living, because the mind has nothing to work with. In some cases, when a sense or two is impaired, the others will become stronger to compensate, as with the person who loses his/her sight and develops a more acute ability to hear. (I expect my recent loss is only temporary; I certainly haven’t noticed any heightening of my remaining senses.) Sensory deprivation, depending on the form it takes and its duration, can be therapeutic. It can also be torture, and the means of ‘losing one’s mind’.

The seventh level of consciousness (also known as the subconscious) is made up of the factors that we generally consider our self-identity: gender, nationality, spirituality, etc. Our stored experience from the sixth level, as well as the conditioning we receive from family and society, exist in this seventh level. This is the level that therapy addresses, and as far as many people are concerned, that’s as far as it goes. If that were the case, life might seem brutish indeed. Born…exist…make mistakes…try to fix…oops, out of time (as Prince would say), death. Even the most well-adjusted, happy, non-therapy-seeking person still tends to grapple with a fear of death. Almost everyone will at some time feel disconnected, lonely, or afraid that he/she has not lived the best and fullest life possible.

But wait, there’s more! I promised nine levels, and nine levels you shall have. The eight level of consciousness is the karmic storehouse. Karma from the past is the source of a lot of what exists in the subconscious; who we are is the effect of who we were. That’s why a person is born into a particular family, country, social status, etc. It’s where our looks, our intelligence, our health, our relationships (familial and otherwise), our tendencies come from. And every moment we are alive we are making causes (through everything that we think, say, and do) that will determine not only the direction our current life takes, but who we will be in the next life. A failure to grasp this can undermine all the good effects of therapy. Despite all the training, best intentions, and strenuous effort in the world, we often find ourselves slipping back into old patterns. Even if believe that our present actions are what creates our future, how do we change that old stuff we can’t even see? How can we get into the ‘deep storage’ and clean it out? How can we access this level?

And that brings us to the ninth level…none other than the Buddha consciousness (or as we call it, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo), which is shared by all life. We chant to tap into this level, to illuminate the darkest corners of our stored karma, and clean that stuff out. It is on this level that we ‘purify the senses’; while we don’t want to be at their mercy, we certainly don’t want to lose them! Viewed through the pure Buddha consciousness, even the most painful existence cannot fail to be improved, and mundane life filled with unimaginable power and richness.

On that note, I’ve decided to cut up a couple of apples. Even if I can’t taste them, I can at least enjoy their juiciness and crunchiness, and they’ll be good for me. And then I’m going to go chant. As Nichiren says, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What sickness can therefore be an obstacle?” I’m not going to let a little thing like being two senses short keep me from purifying the rest of ‘em.

I just took a bite. I think…I can almost, sort of, maybe taste it…

Hope In a Jar?

Years ago, I had a conversation with my father about a concept I’d been wrestling with. “Has there been any time in history,” I remember asking him (inarticulately, of course) “when a specific knowledge of something…like a scientific discovery…well, when everybody realized it was a bad idea, and got together and…suppressed it? Like it never happened?”

He gave it some thought, and said no, probably not. He couldn’t think of anything like that having ever occurred. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, the secret told, the change wrought, it can’t be undone. As in the myth of Pandora’s jar (evidently ‘box’ was a mistranslation), once the troubles inside escaped, there was no putting them back in the jar. Only hope was left…why hope was keeping such bad company, I don’t know…and whether this was good or bad for humanity is up for debate. Did it mean ‘we always have hope’, or…are we hopeless?

I can’t remember if I mentioned to him what I was thinking about, but it was ‘The Bomb’. As in, “Ban the” and “No Nukes”. Referred to nowadays as “nuclear weapons”. My stance on when it’s an acceptable time to use them is the same as that of the SGI: never.

Some history…my father was a Marine during WWII, fighting in the Pacific theater. I didn’t find out until after he passed that he’d been a tail gunner, so he’d probably had firsthand experience of being shot at by the Japanese. I don’t actually know that, because he never talked about his war experiences. There was a book in my parents’ bookcase, “Where did you go? Out. What did you do? Nothing.” that I conflated with the movie title “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” into “What did you do in the war, Daddy? Nothing.” (Now that I think about it, my father may have done this himself, to discourage questions.) He certainly never volunteered any information about his experiences. What I do know is that he came home with a severe disinclination to travel, and he never, ever bought anything made in Japan, his entire life.

I don’t know what he thought, if anything, when I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism, which originated in Japan. I probably wouldn’t ever have known about it, if it hadn’t been for the war. An educator, Tsunesaboro Makaguchi, had developed a humanistic teaching methodology based on the concept of value creation…and children’s happiness. After being introduced to Nichiren Buddhism by a colleague, he incorporated its philosophy into his theory of value-creation and founded the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai in 1930, primarily for educators like himself. His approach to teaching was in stark contrast to the Japanese educational system, which focused on turning children into fervently nationalistic, robotic little future soldiers for the empire. During this time, the Japanese government established Shinto as the state religion; Shinto’s principle deity is the Sun Goddess, of whom the emperor was believed to be the direct descendant. All other religions were forced to accept a subservient role, and anybody who found this unacceptable was arrested and imprisoned. Guess who was among those so-called “thought criminals”? Makiguchi, along with his disciple Josei Toda.

Sad to say, most of the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai members who were also arrested caved in and renounced their religion. Makiguchi died in prison, and Toda, emaciated and sickly, was freed shortly before the war was decisively ended by the dropping of ‘The Bomb’. Two bombs, actually…one on Hiroshima, and the other on Nagasaki, three days later. Approximately 200,000 people died, most of them civilians. More deaths followed from residual effects of the blasts, and in the wake of this devastation, the emperor finally agreed to unconditional surrender.

One of the surrender terms was “Freedom of speech, of religion and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights, shall be established.” (The complete documents can be viewed here: http://tinyurl.com/7qa5jxh ) This was carried out under the command of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur. In the ruined country of Japan, and from the ruins of the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, Josei Toda made it his mission to build a new Soka Gakkai. Its purpose was of course to spread the teachings of Nichiren and to alleviate the sufferings of the Japanese people, but it also had a much broader scope, that of the abolition of nuclear weapons. (You can read his address here: http://www.joseitoda.org/vision/declaration/read ) This was Toda’s vision for the future, which he entrusted to those who would inherit the mantle of the Soka Gakkai. The young Daisaku Ikeda assumed that responsibility, and starting with a trip to the U.S., Canada, and Brazil, began transforming the organization into a global entity. The Soka Gakkai International was established in 1975, and Ikeda is its president. I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism in 1985, and have been an SGI member ever since.

You might be wondering why I’m rehashing what may seem like ancient history. Well, the “War to End All Wars” (WWI) didn’t. “The Last Good War” (WWII) may have been that, but it didn’t end all wars either. There are still diehards who insist that we could have “won” the Vietnam War if we’d just “stayed the course”, and who have condemned the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every day I hear or read something about what we should be doing to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; almost every day I hear or read about somebody saying we should bomb them, and/or kill their scientists. Many of these people are highly placed government officials, or presidential candidates. I also hear and read of people saying the U.S. is a Christian country, and we need a government that is based on “Christian values” (which, evidently, include preemptively bombing other countries). This sounds a lot like theocracy to me…like Iran. It also reminds me of prewar Japan. The children of Japan were taught that the emperor was God’s representative on earth and that it was their duty to obey all orders, including dying for the sake of the empire, and because of this deep-seated indoctrination the bombing of Japan may have seemed inescapable. I believe my father thought so, but then he had a much better reason than most, because he was there, risking his life. I even met a Japanese woman whose attitude was “the emperor may have surrendered, but I didn’t”. For the most part, though, the Japanese people were brainwashed into believing the dreams of empire, just as the Germans were seduced into Nazism. Think it couldn’t happen here? Don’t be so sure. Consider two other surrender terms: “The time has come for Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers whose unintelligent calculations have brought the Empire of Japan to the threshold of annihilation, or whether she will follow the path of reason” and “There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest, for we insist that a new order of peace, security and justice will be impossible until irresponsible militarism is driven from the world.”

In reading this, I can’t help but make comparisons, and conclude that we need to be mindful of “self-willed militaristic advisers” and the tendency toward “irresponsible militarism” in our country, and to remove them from influence. I also think we need to be very, very careful not to blur the line between church and state, especially when it comes to waging war in the name of religion. When a nation’s government and religion are hopelessly enmeshed, criticism of the government becomes an attack on the religion. Is it any wonder that Muslims see the U.S. as engaged in a “war on Islam”? In WWII Japan, Buddhist priests despicably exhorted believers to pray for the destruction of the U.S. (part of the reason the SGI is no longer connected to the priesthood). There is no such thing as a “holy war”; war in the name of religion is the epitome of unholy.

We can’t ‘undrop’ The Bomb. (That’s the trouble with bombs.) The U.S. is the only country that has actually used nuclear weapons against another nation, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union became known as “the world’s only superpower”. It follows, then, that other nations would want to obtain their own nuclear weapons, so that they can feel powerful too. But in light of their capacity for destruction, does it make sense for any nation to have nuclear weapons?

Nichiren states, “When great evil occurs, great good follows.” If we regard the visiting of nuclear weapons upon the world as a “great evil”, what is the “great good” that follows? Is it bombing the countries with governments of which we don’t approve? Is it amassing stockpiles of weapons that we presumably don’t ever want to have to use (and thereby encouraging other countries to do the same), while poverty levels rise, educational achievements diminish, and infrastructure crumbles? I don’t think so. If we truly want “a new order of peace, security and justice”, we need a different approach. The “great good” doesn’t follow automatically; it must be created. We must create it. We humans.

Nuclear abolition is a good start. There’s more to power than having the biggest arsenal. Sure, we could bomb Iran into oblivion (and anyone else that seemed threatening, I suppose), but what would that solve? There will always be another enemy, unless we extinguish all life, and that makes us the “great evil”. Let’s stop looking for enemies everywhere, and concentrate on making friends.

And I really think it’s time Hope came out of that jar…

You Animal

A comment or question I often hear when a person I’m meeting for the first time finds out I’m a Buddhist is, “So you’re a vegetarian?”. Whether it’s prompted by the ‘Happy Buddha” listing on a Chinese restaurant menu that almost always indicated a vegetarian dish, or something else, the answer is the same. No, I’m not. I have, at times, been a vegetarian, a vegan, and a ‘pescatarian’ (eating fish, but no other animals). Before I knew I was a Buddhist, I also wore fur (I don’t expect to do that again this lifetime), and even now I still have some leather shoes, although I mostly buy vegan ones. This is my personal preference. I don’t impose it on anyone else, and others, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, may have stricter standards.

Is it an inconsistency, to profess having respect for all life and still eat meat? Can it be acceptable to eat some animals, but not others? To be a good Buddhist, must one also be vegetarian? These questions were put to the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, who is said to have replied, “It is enough to kill the will to kill.” If this seems evasive or ambiguous, consider the reality of our existence; eventually, everybody gets eaten by something. We are all sometimes predators, other times prey. Having eliminated most of our natural predators, we are still subject to organisms we can’t even see without a microscope-bacteria, viruses, cancers-all of which possess life. Sometimes they are attacking us, other times they are merely present, yet we don’t hesitate to attempt their eradication. Similarly, insects are often destructive and annoying (that’s why we call them ‘bugs’, I suppose); is it evil to exterminate?

Buddhism doesn’t have commandments, so these are the kinds of decisions we have to make for ourselves, based on the wisdom we derive from our spiritual practice. The Buddhist concept of dependent origination explains that all beings and phenomena are inextricably linked and only exist in relation to each other. We do not exist apart from our environment, our environment does not exist without us, and everything is part of the system of cause and effect. If we choose the extreme path of self-abnegation, we might conclude that we have no more right to be alive than anyone else, and cease all efforts to survive. Or we could do the opposite and assert that our existence is more important than anything or anyone else, and claim the right to kill anyone or destroy anything that we deem detrimental to that goal. Which sounds a lot like that lower world known as animality (“Seeing the Elephant”), although humans can display behavior that’s a lot worse than what we attribute to the animal world; neither choice is ideal.

But Buddhism isn’t called the “Middle Way” for nothing, and it is possible to walk this way between those two extremes. The relationship between humans and animals is complex. One of the most pervasive and insidious delusions that plagues us is the tendency to look for the separateness of things rather than to see the connectedness of all things, including beings. It’s easier to look at exterior differences and proclaim anyone who doesn’t look like us (human or animal) the ‘other’, but to do so is to ignore and ultimately deny the Buddha nature that we all have in common. (This is the root of racism, bigotry, and speciesism.) While Buddhism is a humanistic religion, it also recognizes the Buddha quality in all life. When it comes to carrying out a Buddhist practice, humans have an edge, but because of the interconnectedness of all life, we maintain that edge only through our behavior toward the rest of our world. So while it may be acceptable to eat an animal to sustain your life (and in doing so, perhaps the animal gets a ‘karmic boost’), it is not acceptable to mindlessly or viciously destroy life, regardless of how lowly its form. If any behavior were enough to send a human back down the evolutionary ‘ladder’, that would be it!

Other questions arise regarding our relationship to animals. Some regard any ‘use’ of an animal as improper, since an animal cannot give its consent to being used. Others believe that as a higher life form, we have every right to do absolutely anything with or to any animal for any reason we deem fit. But what constitutes improper use, and what is a beneficial interspecies relationship? The ‘middle way’ is somewhere in between, and every human/animal relationship has its enlightened and deluded aspect. Scientific discoveries and medical advances that may have occurred from using animals as test subjects (fortunately we seem to be evolving beyond these methods) may seem a noble cause, but use of animals to test cleaning and cosmetic products is utterly deplorable. Raising animals to feed people may seem like a good, life-sustaining cause, but the dark side is industrial-scale ‘factory’ farming that’s detrimental to both animal and human life. (Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan are good sources for more on this subject.) There are many ways that the human/animal relationship can be mutually beneficial, more so than if we simply allowed all animals to be ‘wild’. Consider the chicken: some consider it evil to eat eggs, but not all eggs are fertilized. Chickens lay eggs regardless of whether or not a rooster is involved. The unfertilized eggs will never be chickens, so eating those eggs is not ‘eating their babies’. Unused, they will be eaten by some other animal (who may also eat the chickens), or left to rot. Though nowhere near as egregious as the mistreatment of factory-farmed animals, it can hardly be regarded as a noble cause.

We owe animals respect, especially if we are using them to our benefit. Once we domesticate a species, we create a new responsibility to care for it. To ignore or shrug off this responsibility is betrayal. This applies to animals we have used for testing, that we have exhibited, used for sport, used for food, or taken into our homes as pets. Because of their changed relationship with humans, it is not only ill advised but cruel to simply ‘release’ them, with the idea that they will be happier ‘running free’ with ‘their own kind’. We have in effect ‘hybridized’ them; their ‘own kind’ is other domesticated animals, and…well, us.

Prior to domestication, in the ‘survival of the fittest’ world, humans tended to regard animals as food only. The evolution of humans and the domestication of animals are inextricably intertwined. Some will argue that domesticating animals is cruel and unethical, period. Of course, a practice’s longevity does not guarantee its value, but over the thousands of years that the process has evolved, animals may have had more choice in the matter than might be supposed. A phrase in the Lotus Sutra, referring to humans, “Single-mindedly yearning to see the Buddha, they do not begrudge their lives”, might well apply to animals too. The ‘help’ might be voluntary, like rousing the family when the house is on fire, or involuntary, like being eaten. In “The Fourteen Slanders”, Nichiren states, “No matter if he is a demon or an animal, if someone proclaims even a single verse or phrase of the Lotus Sutra, you must respect him as you would the Buddha.” Although few animals possess the ability to speak ‘human’, there are countless examples of animals ‘humanizing’ humans. In “The Teaching, Practice, and Proof,” refers to priests distorting the teachings of Buddhism as [having] understanding…inferior to that of cattle or sheep”. By implication, animals must have some level of understanding, simply by being. There are species that will never be anything other than wild; do they “learn to fly”, like the swallow in the folk song “Dona, Dona”? Perhaps. Either way, our inability to domesticate them doesn’t lessen their right to exist in the world, nor does anything an animal does excuse abusive behavior on a human’s part.

If the mythical unicorn appeared on the horizon, one person might say, “Oh, what a beautiful, magical creature! I hope it’s not the only one”; another person might say, “Hey, I think I’ve got a saddle that’d fit it…is there a virgin around here to catch it?”. Yet another person would say, “Hmmm…never ate one of those before…looks delicious…” And, sadly, there would be someone who would wantonly shoot it or hack it to pieces for no good reason at all. Not everyone has killed “the will to kill”.

An animal’s life has intrinsic value; all species have a purpose. Respecting all life doesn’t mean that we can’t, say, kill illness-causing bacteria, or remove a cancerous tumor to save someone’s life, or work to eradicate polio, smallpox, cholera, etc., or smack the cockroach that strays into the kitchen. But we’ve also seen such attempts to control our environment carried too far, causing the occurrence of “superbugs” and other imbalances of the ecosystem. We can’t exist in sterility. Life can’t exist in sterility. That’s why it’s vital that we get past the “I’m human, you’re an animal” mentality, and the often accompanying indifference when a species becomes extinct. Just as we are diminished by the loss of human life, we are also diminished by the loss of animal life.

Besides, we are all animals…even if only some of us have thumbs.

We Can Be Heroes

Ah…the first post of the new year. Must be time for some resolutions…or, as I prefer, “revolutions”. Of course, I’m not talking about the kind that involve violent overthrow of a government, or lots of weapons, or that make international headlines. I’m referring to what we Buddhists call human revolution. It won’t be televised. However, if you want to make a real, long-lasting, and effective change in your life (for the better!), you can’t beat it. Much better than making the obligatory list of “resolutions” that are notorious for their short lifespan…sometimes lasting no longer than a champagne hangover.

Buddhism involves a lot of self-reflection. This doesn’t mean merely turning our attention inward, or focusing on ourselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world. The idea is not to perfect your own life while ignoring the unhappiness of those around you, but to work on yourself in the midst of your relationships with others. The major source of unhappiness is thinking that happiness and empowerment are outside us, or are at best only tenuously connected to our lives. With this belief, the desire for happiness and self-empowerment will be eternally in vain. You may seem to have acquired one or the other at times, perhaps even both at the same time, only to see them slip away. This impermanence is the reality of our material existence.

But impermanence can work both ways. Just as a momentary glory can fade, so too can a hellish unhappiness. As much as we long to hold onto the good stuff and can’t, the trade-off is that we get to shed the bad. In fact, often it’s letting go of the bad stuff that lets the good in. It’s difficult to simultaneously hold onto a grudge, for example, and have a good relationship with someone. But if you can let the grudge go, the relationship immediately begins to improve, even if you do nothing else. Imagine what changes you can effect by deciding (and taking steps) to make it better!

On New Year’s eve, I like to make a list of all the things I didn’t accomplish in the old year, including anything I wasn’t able to change or that made me sad, such as losing a friend or failing at something…or personality traits I think I’d be better off without. I also add in my friends’ problems…everything that seems not conducive to happiness. Once I get a nice, long, comprehensive list, I fold it up, toss it into the fire, and watch it burn. It’s a great feeling. Off with the old, on with the new…with the painful stuff gone, there’s room for the joy.

Making resolutions, setting goals-these are good things to do. We have to overcome the tendency, however, to scrap them at the first sign of failure, or if they don’t fall into place within the timetable we have set. This is how we defeat ourselves. If “genius is the art of taking infinite pains”, then idiocy must be taking no pains at all; in other words, without at least making the attempt to shape your life, you will be forever shaped (warped?) by such seemingly random circumstances as may befall you. Or as Daisaku Ikeda says in Buddhism Day by Day, “One of the epithets of a Buddha is, ‘Hero of the World.’ A Buddha is a valiant and noble champion who has conquered the sufferings of life in the real world. Nichiren writes: ‘Buddhism is like the body, and society like the shadow. When the body bends, so does the shadow.’ People cannot live apart from society. But to be constantly at the mercy of society’s ups and downs is a miserable existence. It is crucial for us to be strong and wise. The ‘body’ Nichiren refers to is, on the personal level, our faith.”

Faith can begin as a simple desire for a better life. In the context of religion, it’s usually defined as belief, either in a deity or a doctrine. In Buddhism, developing a deep and lasting faith requires more than an unsubstantiated belief or a superficial desire for self-improvement. Buddhism advances through an ongoing relationship between mentor and disciple, in which neither can exist without the other, and the expectation is that the disciple will surpass the mentor, becoming a mentor to others, and so on. This is nothing exotic; even the geniuses of the world had teachers. There’s really no such thing as ‘self-taught’. Life is continuing process of learning, building on what came before, and adapting. If that process stopped, life itself would end. Our responsibility is to keep that from happening…and yes, we do have that capability.

It’s that old choice: should I be a hero or a villain? Some prime examples of villains are Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong Il, who achieved wealth and power through inflicting misery on others. But everyone has the capacity to be a villain, even if it’s not on such an epic scale. Amassing worldly wealth and power, even at the expense of others, can be seductive, and it’s easy to forget your resolutions (and your faith) in the pursuit of it. But as Nichiren also says, “It is better to live a single day as a hero than to live to 120 and die in disgrace.” When you seek the good, you add to the good of the world. It’s easy to view the world’s problems as something outside your life, and either try to ignore them or feel overwhelmed with hopelessness in the face of them, but this is not the way to “conquer the sufferings of life in the real world”. Only by painstaking daily efforts can we fundamentally change the reality of our existence, but by doing so, we change the world. For the better.

Whether or not you consider yourself a Buddhist, you have the condition of Buddhahood within you, ready to flower. We all do. As David Bowie says, “we can be heroes, just for one day”.

One day. Then another day. And another. And so on…

Die, Monster! DIE!

I’ve never been one of those eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth advocates. The idea of cutting off thieves’ hands for stealing, stoning adulterers, or hanging the treasonous, has always seemed barbarous. I’ve also never been entirely comfortable with the concept of capital punishment, but there was a time when I thought that, in cases of particularly heinous crimes for which the persons committing the crimes showed absolutely no remorse, perhaps it was appropriate. Even after becoming a Buddhist I wrestled with this issue. I wondered if such people had, through their actions, severed their ties to civilized humanity and forfeited their right to live. As they were unlikely to contribute anything of value to society, their continued existence seemed pointless. And what if they were released from prison? Having already shown such disregard for life, wouldn’t they be likely to kill again? Execution seemed the only sure way to safeguard the decent, the innocent, the non-killers. I was still more or less opposed to the death penalty, but I did think that sometimes, in some cases, there might be some justification.

After decades of Buddhist practice and study, though, I’ve changed my mind.

It’s not that I haven’t listened to the arguments put forth by supporters. I’ve listened, discussed, argued, and given it serious consideration. I’m anti-war, but I reluctantly concede that there may be some instances where some kind of military action is unavoidable (no preemptive strikes, please!). I’m against violence, but if someone’s attacking me, you can bet that I’ll do my best to survive, even if it means killing my attacker.

Of course, I hope I’m never in that position. Killing…ending a life…is never something to be taken lightly. Nichiren says “a single life is worth more than the major world system”, not differentiating between the life of a good person or an evil person. Our human tendency, however, is to assign differing values to other people’s lives, even if we are not actually called upon to decide whether someone should live or die (as I would have had to do in that hypothetical situation of killing an attacker). Because I was defending my life against someone whose intention was to destroy it, the karmic effect would presumably be less for me than it would be for the aggressor. There would undoubtedly be a police investigation, and possibly a trial, but I’d probably be exonerated. However, because there is no cause without a simultaneous effect, I would still have to deal with the resulting karma that I incurred by destroying life…even though it wasn’t my idea to be attacked in the first place. Something in my life, past or present, led to this moment, allowed this to occur; at minimum, it is my responsibility to determine the direction of my future to prevent it from happening again.

Proponents of capital punishment put forth this hypothesis: What if the victim was your child (or brother/sister/mother/father/wife/husband/etc.), who didn’t deserve to die? Why should the killer, that monster, be allowed to keep living, when the innocent is dead? In the TV version, it would happen like this: evil bad person kills good person in front of impeccably reliable witnesses. He’s summarily arrested; incorruptible police officers diligently gather incontrovertible evidence; skilled, impassioned prosecutor proves killer’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; he’s sentenced by a stern but fair judge and jailed briefly, just long enough for the scene where he shows no remorse, proving that he really, really is a monster who deserves to die. And then he’s injected with poison or electrocuted and it’s all over. Mission accomplished, justice done. Collective sigh of relief as we all move on…murderer descends to hell and suffers its torments for all eternity. No ambiguities: no cops being pressured to close a case quickly arresting the wrong person, no paid informants telling lies, no eye witnesses’ mistaken identification, no tampering with or suppression of exonerating evidence, no sleeping public defender, no incompetent judge, no jury manipulation, and absolutely no possibility of a wrongful conviction, ever. Die, monster, DIE!

That’s not the reality. In real life, all of the above have happened, and innocent people have been put to death, in some cases, their “crime” being poor and/or non-white. That reason alone is reason enough to outlaw capital punishment, all other arguments aside.

But to get back to the hypothesis, only those who have endured this emotionally devastating experience can answer the question meaningfully; for anyone else, it’s merely theoretical. Reactions differ. Some people crave a revenge that can only be satisfied with the killer’s execution. Some think that will satisfy them, only to realize afterward that the removal of what they perceived to be the cause of their suffering didn’t actually make it go away. Still others work through the pain by struggling to find meaning in their loss, even trying to forgive the killer. Sometimes they even succeed.

Does the killer deserve forgiveness? Perhaps not. Even if the answer is yes, that doesn’t extend to the jail doors being thrown open and his going about his merry way, possibly to kill again. But forgiveness is really more for the benefit of the person who has something to forgive, not the one who has done something unforgivable. The law of cause and effect trumps the laws of society, so no one who murders gets off scot-free, regardless of what takes place in a court of law. Does it benefit the life of the person who has lost a loved one to harbor feelings of anger, resentment, and a desire for revenge in his/her heart? Does that honor the life of the person lost? It does not. At best, a rage against the crime and the criminal may temporarily help you to avoid the pain, or fill the emptiness caused by having you love violently torn from your life, but it’s not possible to sustain for long without creating your own hell on earth.

To address the idea of the death penalty as a deterrent, it only (provably) deters the person who has already killed from doing it again. If it were really a deterrent, surely people would have stopped killing long ago. Life in prison accomplishes the same thing; the real problem is that a life sentence, even “life without parole”, doesn’t always work that way. There have been too many tragic cases where paroled killers did indeed kill again. But the solution to this problem is not capital punishment; it’s reforming our justice system, an issue that I’ll address in another post. A sentence of life without parole (barring a case of wrongful conviction) should mean just that. The killer should have to remember every day why he is in prison. Keeping him alive makes it at least possible that he will some day realize the enormity of what he has done. Execute him, and there’s no hope of that. Plus, the execution doesn’t happen by itself; actual humans have to carry it out. Why does this matter? From a Buddhist standpoint, destroying any human life is one of the worst causes a person can make. It’s less of an offense, perhaps, to kill someone after due process and according to the laws of society, but it is still an act of destruction, and the opposite of creating value. After all, even good people can benefit from an inner reformation; realizing that we all have the capacity for evil, we can strengthen the good in ourselves while seeking the good in others and encouraging its growth. We don’t need to be more angry, more vengeful, or more hateful, even though at times it seems completely justified. When we do, we are “feeding the monster”…making it even more likely that the unrepentant killer we sentenced to die will return again and again, lifetime after lifetime, perpetuating the cycle of death and destruction. Until we can break that cycle, the monster will never truly die.

Darkness, Darkness

Fundamental Darkness and Clinical Depression are not one and the same, but if they were guests at a dinner they’d surely sit near one another, comparing notes on how to degrade the human spirit and destroy happiness. They’d probably move around the table, too, to spread the misery, taking special care to target anyone who already looked like he/she wasn’t having a good time. And those who tried to get away from them would probably be followed from room to room, unable to escape the persistent voices telling them such things as “you’re not good enough…smart enough…attractive enough…” and/or “no one cares about you…you’re a nobody…a failure…nothing you do matters”.

Okay, so I got carried away. “FD” and “CD” aren’t really actual people, although sometimes it can seem that way, especially when you hear those kinds of words coming at you out of other people’s mouths. Clinical depression (hereinafter referred to as “depression”) is a form of mental illness that takes away your volition. For starters, it can make you sleep too much or not be able to sleep, affect your appetite, your sex drive, and ultimately make you think life is not worth living. It’s different from the sort of “situational sadness” that most of us feel from time to time when something bad happens, that time and friendship and new experiences ease. Depression is essentially incompatible with life…it can make you feel as though you’ve been poisoned, possessed by demons, disconnected from yourself, and then cunningly convince you that the “alternate you” is who you really are, and that there’s no way out.

If depression can do all that, you might ask, what’s left for fundamental darkness to do? Short answer: plenty.

While not everyone will suffer from depression, we all get to experience some other manifestation of fundamental darkness. The SGI dictionary defines fundamental darkness as the “inability to see or recognize the truth, particularly, the true nature of one’s life” (read more here: http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php). It’s the opposite of enlightenment. Fundamental darkness is the source of all human sufferings (including depression), and as it’s inherent in life, there’s no getting rid of it. The worst thing about it is how insidious it can be. It’s not just a voice in your head that tells you bad things about yourself, that you could maybe drown out with good music and strong drink. Essentially, it’s the negative function in your life that exists to prevent you from becoming enlightened, and it takes many, many forms.

Suppose you have this great idea, but you’re afraid to voice it. If it’s that great, you tell yourself, someone else has probably already had it. Or maybe it’s not such a great idea after all. If I tell anyone about it, they’ll think I’m crazy, or they’ll steal it from me. Meanwhile time is passing, and if someone does happen upon the same idea and does something with it, you find cold comfort in the idea that you were right all along. It just wasn’t meant to be, you tell yourself. I’m obviously not the kind of person who makes things happen.

Or, someone really screws you over. You’re hurt, but tell yourself it’s no big deal, you should just let it go, but inside you the anger boils and seethes. You fantasize about all the wonderfully horrible things that could “just happen” to that person…how happy you’d be, that someone got what he deserved.

Or maybe you have a special talent. You’d like to develop it, but what’s the use? Someone else is always going to be better, or get the recognition, fame, adulation, respect that should be yours. Or perhaps you do pursue your dream, but you can only feel good when your rivals fail. You live for that…at least, that’s what you call living.

These examples may seem too extreme, too dramatic, too over the top. You can be a good person, a happy person, with a family that loves you and a circle of good friends. Why should you concern yourself with this fundamental darkness stuff, and what’s the point of enlightenment, anyway? Life is good. Everything’s fine. (Cue dramatic music…for now.)

Here’s why: life is constantly changing. We are all different people, and yet we are all connected, so even when you think everything’s fine, someone in your life may have an entirely different perspective. Fundamental darkness isn’t always about big emotions and murderous impulses. Sometimes it shows up as boredom, or inertia. That person you thought you’d love forever suddenly irritates you. You realize that years have passed and you can’t remember anything in particular about how you spent them. You have vague plans, hopes, wishes, but you never do anything to make them happen. You accept the status quo and consider yourself lucky that things aren’t any worse. You compare yourself to others and decide that all in all, you’re not so bad.

And that’s how fundamental darkness can work in anybody’s life. Though it’s always lurking, you can minimize its effect on your life, and even transform it. Yes! You can actually make fundamental darkness work for you. The first step is to recognize it for what it is. Life is forward motion; life is progressive. When you feel something is holding you back, when you think you are stuck, when you don’t want to move at all, that’s when you need to make the greatest effort. It’s like spiritual resistance training. When fundamental darkness weighs you down, you push back, and every time you do, you become stronger. I use my Buddhist practice to do this because I love turning the bad stuff into good karma, but even if you’re not a Buddhist, you can learn to recognize negative functions in your life. It’s vital to remember that the negative function is not “you” (nor is depression); the real you is a human being capable of enlightenment, and fundamental darkness may slow you down sometimes but can’t take that away from you.

Imagine the conversational possibilities when you find yourself seated next to “FD” at the dinner party. “So you’re Fundamental Darkness? I’ve heard so much about you!” you proclaim in a bright, carrying voice. “Is it true that you love making people miserable? Do tell…”

Because there’s nothing like telling the truth for making FD shut up.