Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for June 2010

How to feed an ego

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For the past few weeks the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called Ideas ran a three-part series of programs entitled “Have Your Meat and Eat It Too.” Themes that run through all three installments are the methods of so-called factory farming and all the distortions that large scale agricultural operations feed into the economy, the environment and the political climate of the countries in which it is practiced. There are examinations of the influence of pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies that produce artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and giant low-price retailers such as Wal-Mart and large fast-food chains such as McDonalds that force prices paid to farmers to such low levels that hardly anyone in small-scale agriculture can make a livelihood any more. Rarely have I heard the word ”unsustainable“ used so many times in a span of three hours.

Episodes two and three both have discussions of the ethical and environmental and health implications of a vegetarian diet. Suffice it to say that it is not obvious that a vegetarian diet is unambiguously indicated as the best way to stay healthy and preserve the environment, although everyone agrees that the current dietary proclivities of Americans are both unhealthy and environmentally disastrous. Unfortunately, American dietary habits are finding their ways to other parts of the world as well, making obesity one of America’s principal exports.

One of the observations that most caught my attention in these discussions was made by a woman who was a vegan for 20–30 years and eventually changed her diet to include some animal products. She observed that being a vegan is much more than deciding what to eat and what not to eat. It is also taking on an identity. It is carrying all the baggage of a persona that must be defended almost every time one picks up a fork. It is, in other words, to take on a practice that has exactly the opposite effect of what most Buddhist (and other spiritual) practices are designed to do, namely, to reduce one’s attachment to a particular identity.

And, said this former vegan, whenever one takes on an identity, one loses perspective and enters into a mentality that warps almost everything one sees, systematically refuses to look at evidence impartially, and enters into the epistemological vices of believing things for which one has insufficient evidence and not believing things despite having plenty of evidence.

Buddhists called these epistemological vices by the simple term moha, which means the state of being perplexed, confused, infatuated or fooled.

Needless to say, there is no invariable causal relationship between deciding to be a vegan and becoming incapable of thinking carefully and impartially. As long as one makes such decisions whimsically and realizes that the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality, everything is fine. It is only when one begins to think that there is something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to get into spiritual (and philosophical) trouble.

All these observations of the vegan in recovery intrigued me, because they spoke to my own experience. In the early 1990s I became convinced that veganism was the only morally defensible diet for an environmentalist and a Buddhist dedicated to the project of reducing the suffering of the world. I entered into a year of living fanatically. I found myself welling up with disgust when I saw people put a few dribbles of milk into their afternoon tea. As for people who put a spoonful of honey on their yeast-leavened bread, I regarded them as morally equivalent to genocidal maniacs. I exaggerate for effect, of course, but I really did find myself hating the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that entered my mentality shortly after I began to eschew all animal products from my pantry and my wardrobe. It was as though I had suddenly become a patriot or the member of some marginalized tribe fighting for ethnic survival. It was as though I had become the follower of a quaint religion that forbids marrying outside the faith and associating with out-group folk for fear of ideological contamination. (My readings of the history of Quakerism have informed me that the Society of Friends went through a long period of avoiding, as much as practicality would allow, contact with non-Friends—a decidedly unfriendly attitude.)

To some extent even insistent ideologically driven vegetarianism promotes epistemological warping, but not, in my personal experience, to the extent that ideologically driven veganism does.

One of my cultural heroes was Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of the principal architects of the constitution of India, the world’s largest democracy. Amdbedkar was born into an Indian caste that was regarded as untouchable. Despite having earned two PhD degrees from universities outside India (London School of Economics and Columbia University), Ambedkar was still treated for much of his life as a person whose presence would contaminate the purity of high-caste Hindus. Eventually attitudes changed somewhat, and Ambedkar got at least some of the recognition he deserved. One of his writings was a monograph in which he tried to discover the history of the institution of untouchability in India. His thesis is complex, but an oversimplified version of it is that Hindus and Buddhists became involved in a protracted rivalry of self-righteousness in which each religion tried to depict itself as more concerned with ethical purity than the other. One of the many foci of attention, said Ambedkar, was diet. Over the centuries, Hindus and Buddhists tried to outdo one another by excluding more and more from their diets. The logical conclusion of this was what we now call veganism, a diet in which no animal products whatsoever are eaten, worn or used. The Untouchables, said Ambedkar, were descended from Buddhists who did not participate in the extreme Buddhist practice of veganism. In fact, they were cattle ranchers. When Buddhism disappeared from India, said Ambedkar, the formerly Buddhist cowboys were rejected by Hindu society and, unlike more educated Buddhists, were never reabsorbed into Hinduism.

Ambedkar’s theory of the history of the Untouchables is highly speculative and, like all speculative theories, questionable. That notwithstanding, the literary record of Buddhism clearly supports his claim that there were Buddhists who advocated a vegan diet so adamantly that they claimed all self-proclaimed Buddhists who did not follow a vegan diet would go to hell for aeons because of their hypocrisy. The argument was that no one who claims to be compassionate would ever eat meat, or consume milk or honey (since both of these products are stolen from the species that produce them) or wear wool (stolen from sheep) or silk (which requires the killing of silkworms). Few tracts in the history of religious literature are as fanatical as Mahāyāna Buddhist writings that insist on total avoidance of all animal products. The tone of those texts is self-righteous and contemptuous of all who make choices other than the ones advocated by the texts. That they had the potential to marginalize and denigrate meat-eating and wool-wearing people is undeniable. It is not at all a pretty picture and hardly lives up to the reputation for tolerance that Buddhists have often had in modern times.

In the early 1990s at a Canadian academic conference on Buddhist philosophy, I wrote a scathing denunciation of the fallacious argumentation found in the vegan sections of various Buddhist texts. Because I was then climbing out of my own descent into a fanatical form of veganism, I no doubt was as offensive to reason as the texts I was denouncing. I recall the moderator of the panel I was on offering an embarrassed apology to the audience for my performance. At the time, I laughed it off, but now I look back on that panel with chagrin. In trying to recover from the fanaticism of my dietary ideology, I was still participating in the very tone of intolerance that I found so objectionable.

What is especially embarrassing to me is that I became so defensive of a persona—of an ego—in the name of Buddhism, a tradition that had always made as its cardinal teaching that all we do to maintain our personas causes pain, conflict and discomfort to self and others. It is small comfort to realize that I am probably not unique in having become so zealous that I ended up exemplifying exactly the antithesis of the path I was so zealously striving to follow.

Unlike my own previous discourses on veganism (both for and then against), which were polemical diatribes, the Ideas program on meat-production and meat-eating is admirably balanced and offers the best arguments both for and against vegetarianism. The programs are exemplars of careful research and dispassionate exploration. My guess is that most listeners would emerge from them with a recognition that many of the opinions they have held on the topic before were overly simple and insufficiently nuanced.

The Ideas program chased up a rabbit in the labyrinth of my memory. In my grandparent’s sparsely outfitted apartment, the dining room walls were bare except for a framed exemplar of the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

When my grandfather died, my mother gave me that framed exemplar and apologized profusely for giving me something that might offend my vegetarian sensibilities. I explained to her that the prayer was written in the 17th century, when the word “meat” was metonymic for food, in much the same way that “meal” is in current English, or “go-han” (rice) is in Japanese. So when a 17th century family sat down to have their meat, they often ate bread and ale and perhaps a piece of cheese. But that is really beside the point. The point, which I acknowledge with shame, is that my mother recognized in me the stink of possible intolerance toward those who did not follow my chosen diet.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 20:50

Posted in Faith and practice

Machine-minded man

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Where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. Within a machine heart in your breast, you’ve spoiled what was pure and simple; and without the pure and simple, the life of the spirit knows no rest. (from Zhuangzi, chapter 12, translated by Burton Watson)

In Zhuangzi’s story, these words are spoken by an old farmer who is seen carrying water in a gourd and watering his garden with it, making trip after trip. A passing city clicker sees the old man laboring to carry small amounts of water and tells him he could irrigate the entire field using a mechanical pump.

As I was sitting in silence in the Quaker meeting for worship yesterday, this story and those farmer’s words came to mind. As I thought of putting them aside, a mental image arose of the words appearing on a computer screen in the context of a word-processing program. In my imagination, I closed the file and stored it in a folder. What came to mind when I thought of clearing my mind was the image of shutting down a computer. As I tried to turn my thoughts to other things, all I could visualize was a computer monitor on which I was clicking on concrete thoughts with a mouse, dragging files into folders, deleting unwanted files by dragging their icons to the icon of the trash basket. Even when I tried to put machines out of my mind and to visualize a beautiful meadow in the mountains, it was as though I was looking at the scene through the lens of a digital camera, or seeing it on a television. I could visualize nothing directly. Everything was mediated by machines. A mild panic began to arise in my breast. For a good half hour, I found myself almost completely incapable of having thoughts of anything that was not somehow connected to a computer, or an iPod, or a mobile telephone. When I tried to listen, the only ambient sounds I could hear were the sounds of passing traffic, air conditioners, electrical fans, machines that neighbors were using to do yard work. No sounds of birds, no sounds of insects, no sounds of thunder or rain. For the remainder of the meeting, I felt completely hemmed in by machines, and machine worries. I was imprisoned by conTRAPtions. And indeed, while that lasted, my spirit knew no rest.

There has been a growing literature on the subject of how computers and other electronic devices affect our brains. One recent contribution to that literature is an article called Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price. Science programs on NPR and CBC radio have chronicled studies showing that multi-tasking actually takes more time than doing a series of tasks in tandem. (Contrary to what may people in our post-literary society seem to believe, “in tandem” means lined up one after another rather than linked together side by side.) Not only does it take more time to try to do several things at once, but the risk of error increases. Trying to do several things at once not only wastes time, but it makes people more careless. And the more habituated one becomes to trying to work that way, the more one deteriorates into conditions very much like attention deficiency disorder (which most people lack the patience to say in full, preferring to call it by the abbreviation ADD).

As inefficient and careless as multitasking makes those who try to do it, most of us are in one way or another seduced into doing what computers and other electronic devices make it possible to do. Many people admit to interrupting their writing of an article by checking their e-mail quickly, clicking on a link to check out a website, downloading a song they have just heard on Pandora.com while doing all the above, and quickly doing a chat with a cousin while checking to see whether there are any voice messages on their mobile telephone, which reminds them that it is time to call their mother-in-law on Skype. And if any of these tasks takes a microsecond or two longer than usual, impatience boils over into keyboard rage. I don’t have to report that people I know have learned to work that way. I myself have begun to work that way, with bad, if not disastrous, consequences.

It has been shown that when one multi-tasks on computers, dopamine levels rise for a moment, followed by a crash into mini-depression as one has to face a few moments in a normal mental state rather than in a dopamine-adrenalin high. From the point of view of brain chemistry, the effect is close to the mental state of a person with mental illness.

Machines are not only giving most of us restless spirits through an abundance of mechanical worries, they are also numbing our awareness of the fact that the manufacturing, transporting, fueling and using of machines is making human beings act collectively in ways that are destroying the planet on which we live. As I write this, oil is gushing into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as a result of one company’s bid to maximize profits by cutting corners in the enterprise of producing petroleum to be captured and transformed at enormously high cost to fuel and lubricate machines, or to make plastic products that are to be used for a short time and then thrown away to produce garbage that will pollute the land and the waterways for centuries. There is deep and serious madness in this way of living. We have arrived at the state where the majority of the more than six billion inhabitants of the earth should be in mental hospitals. But when the majority of the population has gone insane through their restless spirits and machine-worried minds, those few whose spirits are still intact are the ones who seem mad. Something seems uncanny about sane people. They disturb the rest of us.

Zhuangzi finishes his dialogue in these words:

Where the life of the spirit knows no rest, the Way will cease to buoy you up. It’s not that I do not know about your machine—I would be ashamed to use it.

I am ashamed to have written this on a computer, and to be publishing it on the Internet. If you have had the patience to read it all the way to the end, rejoice that you have not succumbed to machine-induced ADD. And then feel ashamed for have read it on the Internet. May your shame lead you into the garden to listen to the bees buzzing among the petals.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, June 7, 2010 at 16:44

Posted in Meditation