Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for the ‘Philosophical basis’ Category

Spiritual power warps

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For a couple of decades I gravitated toward organizations that had a feature I wished could be eliminated and replaced with something closer to my idea of how organizations ought to be. The feature I wished to eliminate was a warp in power, an exercise of authority that was usually presented as spiritual wisdom but was more often than not just a manifestation of what Nietzsche called the Will to Power. The idea I had of how religious organizations ought to be run was forged by my experience in early adulthood with The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I kept wanting to find something like a Buddhist group run along Quaker lines. What I repeatedly found was Buddhist groups run by megalomaniacs surrounded by fawning sycophants.

There is no point in naming names or dragging reputations through the mud. Nothing of value can be gained from that exercise. Let it suffice to speak in generalities about the sort of thing one can find in the several traditional religious organizations coming from Asia.

There are teachers to be found whose life experiences consist mostly of being taken care of by adoring disciples. There are teachers who spend the last forty years of their lives never so much as cooking a noodle, washing a dish, laundering an undershirt, ironing a robe, planting a seed, pulling a weed, lifting a burden, carrying a load or pushing a cart. They are surrounded by people who do all those things, and to those people who do the work the teachers offer what they call spiritual advice. But of what use to a person who must toil like a slave is the spiritual insight of a master whose only work is to tell slaves what they should do to keep him happy?

There are teachers who have immunized themselves from all forms of criticism and feedback. They do not have conversations. They deliver monologues. They do not listen. They speak, often at great length and with little regard or consideration for the time of those who must listen to them. Ironically, a favorite theme of such teachers is that worldly time is an illusion and that being aware of time is a sign of attachment and ego. Anyone who feels that his time is being wasted is immediately made to feel ashamed for being worldly and small-minded.

The Quaker William Penn once observed how much time is lost if one rises to speak in a Quaker meeting and says more than is necessary. Suppose sixty people are present in the meeting. If the speaker continues speaking for one minute more than was necessary to say what needed to be said, then one human hour is wasted. If a minister delivers a dry and lifeless twenty-four-minute sermon to a congregation of sixty people, he wastes one entire human day. (Not long ago, I calculated that a very repetitious and uninspiring talk I was listening to had wasted about two and a half human days. By giving ten ninety-minutes talks to forty-five hearers, this teacher could waste almost exactly a human month.)

There is no doubt that a good deal of time can be consumed by a group of thirty or sixty equals trying to arrive at a decision. What is the difference between a group of equals consuming time by trying to arrive at consensus (or Quaker unity), and a minister consuming time by delivering a monologue to which his congregation is a captive audience? There are several differences, but the principal one is that there is very little of the master-slave dynamic in a society of equals, whereas in the authoritarian monologue there is very little else going on but the domination of a group by an individual bent on exercising his will to power.

George Fox and other early Quakers used to walk into Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and Puritan church services and challenge the preachers. The Quakers were often repaid for this kind service by terms in prison. Drawing attention to the imbalance in power between clergy and congregation in this dramatic way was no doubt as excessive as it was effective. That notwithstanding, I do find myself wondering why it is that people allow themselves to be held captive. After all, all one need do when a preacher goes on beyond his light is to stand up and walk out.

Slaves, get up on your feet and walk away from your masters in whatever form they take: swami, guru, lama, priest, bishop, cardinal, presbyter. I recommend it. I predict you will not regret being without an all-too-human lord and master. You will, to be sure, make a few mistakes. But they will be your own, and they will be a small price to pay for the freedom of finding your own light in your own way.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 18:52

Universal love

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Various traditions around the world have advocated cultivating universal love. Buddhist texts such as the Mettā Sutta say that nothing is more noble in this world than loving all being as a mother loves her only son. The Chinese philosopher Mozi says that one should love every older person as one loves one’s own father, and every younger person as one loves one’s younger brother, and every country as one loves one’s own. Various theistic religions say that one should try to love as God loves: without favorites and without conditions and without expectations of reciprocity.

On more than one occasion when I have advocated some version of universal and unconditional love, I have been challenged. Some say it is not desirable for a human being to have such love. Others say it is impossible for a human being to love everyone unconditionally and equally. In what follows I shall explore whether universal live is desirable; and, If it is desirable, whether it is possible; and finally, even if it is not possible, whether there is a point in striving anyway for unreachable goals.

Is universal love desirable?

The argument that universal unconditional love is not desirable goes something like this. Love entails forgiveness; unconditional love entails accepting people and other living beings just as they are, with no expectation that they be otherwise. But some actions are so heinous that they should never be forgiven, nor should the people who have committed them. To accept a serial rapist or a sadistic torturer or a genocidal tyrant would be monstrous and contrary to everything we normally mean by love.

The objection just stated seems to rest on a confusion between forgiving persons and forgiving actions. One can easily forgive a person without forgiving or condoning every action the person has done. Parents do this sort of thing all the time when they lovingly remonstrate with their child. Quakers have a tradition of what they call spirit-led eldering, which amounts to lovingly helping a person get over an obstacle to realizing his potential of being the best person he is capable of being. It is based on the recognition that no one ever completely outgrows the need for benevolent parenting. In Buddhism, the obligations of a mentor and a disciple are exactly the same; each undertakes to help the other follow the Buddhist precepts, and each remonstrates with the other when behavior falls short of the ideal. To accept rape, torture or genocide would be monstrous. But to fail to provide loving help to someone whose circumstances have led him to such conduct is no less monstrous.

Another objection to the very idea of universal love is that loving every living being would diminish one’s love for parents, siblings and offspring. This objection is apparently based on the assumption that everyone has only so much love to give, and if one gives it out to everyone, then no one will receive as much as if she were the sole object of the lover’s love. As everyone who has ever loved knows, however, that assumption is false. Love has the mysterious feature that the more of it one gives, the more one has to give. The experience of those who cultivate universal love is that their love for friends and family actually increases rather than diminishing.

Is it possible to love everyone?

Some people argue that it is impossible to give unconditional love to everyone and that it is certainly impossible to love everyone as a mother loves her only child. Some make this claim because they have tried and failed. Others offer a priori arguments. One such argument is that only God can love everyone and that human beings who try to do what only God can do are falling victim to the sin of pride, or, at best, are sure to be disappointed as a result of failing to do what they set out to do. Yet another argument is that it is impossible to love what one does not know, and since it is impossible to know every living being, it is impossible to love them.

Of those arguments, the a priori claims are of course the least compelling. Not much is gained by making untestable claims about the nature of God. It is true that setting out to do something that turns out to be impossible can lead to a kind of disappointment, and, if one lets oneself indulge in self-deprecation. one might even suffer a blow to one’s self-esteem. The claim that there are more beings than one can possibly know is, of course, beyond question. It is not, however, required to know someone to have love for them. Having love of the sort advocated here is a readiness to be open and receptive to whomever one does happen to encounter.

The most persuasive of the arguments is the one based on experience. As someone who fails daily to cultivate unconditional love for all living beings, I am ready to concede that loving everyone equally and without preconditions is beyond my capacity. In effect, it is impossible for me to do.

Is there any point in striving for unattainable goals?

In mathematics there is the useful concept of an asymptote—a limit that can never be reached but toward which some function tends. I see the Buddhist concept of nirvana as something analogous to an asymptote. Nirvana is defined as the complete eradication of all negative and counterproductive psychological traits. I doubt that anyone has ever attained such a state. At the same time, I see it as the right direction to be heading. I had rather be reducing the number of counterproductive traits rather than to be increasing them or being content to stay forever at the stage of progress I have made so far. Similarly, universal love is an asymptotic goal. I had rather be increasing the number of beings I love and improving the quality of the love I can offer them than to be reducing the number of beings I love or loving them with an ever more inferior kind of love. In short, the theoretical or practical impossibility of reaching a goal does not make the goal any less worthy of pursuit.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 11:34

In harmony with its own nature

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The life that is happy is in harmony with its own nature. This can only come about when the mind is in a healthy state and in permanent possession of its own sanity, robust and vigorous…ready to make use of the gifts of fortune without being enslaved to them

The highest good is an indomitable forces of mind that, strengthened by experience, shows itself in action as calm, profoundly generous and concerned for the welfare of others.

I quoted these words from Seneca’s essay “On the Happy Life” in a philosophy class today. No sooner had they left my lips than a student had her hand in the air. She said “Seneca can’t be right. Science has proven that all of life is selfish.” I suggested that it is unlikely that science has proven any such thing, although it is possible that some individual scientists have interpreted some of their observations as meaning that life is at some level a selfish enterprise. The student frowned and said she had heard in a science class that science has proved that nature is essentially selfish and that caring for the welfare of others is unnatural. It is not a bad idea, I said, to question authority figures, even science professors—I had to add, of course, that she should not just take my word for it that questioning authority figures is not a bad idea.

Seneca was a Stoic. Part of his conviction is that human beings are part of the world of nature and that nature is orderly. That which makes all of nature orderly is part of everything that is within nature, including human beings. What makes human beings orderly is reason. What makes nature orderly Seneca called the divine. When human beings use their reason, he said, they are using that part of themselves that is divine. Divinity is not something to be admired from afar and worshiped and admired. It is something to be, something to enact.

George Fox, founder of the Quakers, spoke often of what he called “that of God in everyone.” Some Buddhists held the conviction that each of us has as our essential nature a tranquil and compassionate mentality, just like that of the Buddha. What George Fox called that of God in everyone these Buddhists called Buddha-nature. Seneca was not alone in his convictions.

Whatever it may be called by various traditions, there is a peaceful state that most of us can reach by being still and turning off the chattering narrative that provides a running commentary to most of our experiences. One can learn to find that peaceful state. Since finding that state is the deepest happiness one can attain, and since one can learn to find it, it follows that happiness is a skill that, like any other skill, can be acquired. Perhaps it can be taught. Perhaps not. When words come out of that peaceful state they may encourage others to find that same state within themselves. When that takes place, then one is answering to that of God in another.

Let the silence resume.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 16:15