Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

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View through a needle’s eye

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As he was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one—God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not give false testimony,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.” Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” But his face fell at that saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus looked around, and said to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus answered again, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:17–25)

One of the many enigmas that we face as we enter into the year 2011 is the political alliance that has formed in recent decades between some evangelical Christians and the plutocrats who have seized control of much of the world and have waged—and for the most part won—a war on the poor. So successful has the campaign of the wealthy classes against the middle-class and the poor been that the political forces who promote the interests of the wealthy have even managed to stigmatize the expression “class warfare” by suggesting that anyone who thinks in terms of class warfare is anti-American and opposed to the ideals expressed in the Constitution of the United States and in the Declaration of Independence. Consequently, it has become almost impossible to have an honest and accurate discussion of the dynamics of American politics without immediately being dismissed as an extreme-left  ideologue. Fortunately, an increasing number of Christians, and followers of other religions, are speaking out and pointing out that the amassing of wealth—especially when this is done to the detriment of the general well-being of the rest of the human race—is contrary to the core values of nearly every religion and philosophical system in the history of the human race. (Just to give two examples, there is a website called Faithful America and another called Sojourners, on both of which one finds thoughtful and spirited critiques of mainstream American politics by mainstream American religious leaders.)

In his essay Creative Unity Rabindranath Tagore quotes the opening lines of William Wordsworth’s sonnet, The World is Too Much With Us:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Tagore comments on these lines,

But it is not because the world has grown too familiar to us; on the contrary, it is because we do not see it in its aspect of unity, because we are driven to distraction by our pursuit of the fragmentary.

Tagore’s conviction is that the world is a whole, a unity, an integer. To be driven to distraction by pursuing only a part of the whole is to miss the integer; in other words, it is to lack integrity. Lacking integrity by pursuing a part in forgetfulness of the whole is described in other terminology in the Abrahamic religions; in Judaism, Christianity and Islam such amnesia is usually called idolatry, the worship of some part of creation while neglecting the Creator. However one chooses to refer to it, the effects of being driven to distraction range from the merely wasteful to the disastrous.

Among the ways of being distracted from unity that engaged the attention of Rabindranath was nationalism, the favoring of one nation above all others. Who can help cringing every time a politician describes his or her country as the greatest nation in the world—or, worse, that some nation or other is the greatest that has existed in all of history? Those who believe (or at least say) that their own nation is the best (or most free, or most prosperous, or happiest, or has the best health-care system) in the world usually go on to show their ignorance in other ways, such as by suggesting that some peoples living and working within the best of all countries are doing less than others to promote the greatness of that blessed country than others, or are even diminishing the greatness of the country in some way. In India, which became an independent country a little less than a decade after Rabindranath’s death, one finds the disturbing Hindutva movement, which denigrates the contributions of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs to the greatness of India and challenges the painstaking research of all historians whose publications offer a nuanced picture of the cultural diversity and complexity of India.

In much of Europe one finds political movements dedicated to the proposition that Muslims have a substandard grasp of the theories and practices of the European enlightenment and thus pose a serious threat to modernity. In the United States one witnesses a persistent xenophobic current in which Muslims leaking into the country via Canada and migrants storming the borders from points south are targeted as alarming threats to the American way of life. (Muslims and Mexicans seem to have replaced Catholics, Italians and voting women as the greatest internal threats to the indivisible one nation under God that promises liberty and justice to all. No sooner is one threat domesticated, it seems, than another rises to take its place.) None of these social and political phenomena would have pleased Rabindranath Tagore, but probably none of them would have taken him by surprise either.

Probably the greatest single rupture of integrity in the current American way of life is the willful blindness to the damage the pursuit of comfort and convenience has done to the earth’s environment. As if to exemplify the words of Paul the apostle (in II Thessalonians 2.11) that “God sends them a working of error, that they should believe a lie,” coal and oil and gas providers have convinced a substantial number of Americans that there is truth in the lie that human behavior is not a factor in global warming. The commercial sources of opinion (often misleadingly called news) have been complicit in spreading the lie that experts are divided on the question of whether the burning of fossil fuels for energy has been a factor in the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans and the resultant extreme weather conditions that are being seen all over the planet.

Environmental devastation is the inevitable result of a way of seeing the world through the eye of a needle that allows people to focus only on what is of immediate utility to the comfort and convenience and maintenance of power of the most affluent human beings who happen to be alive right now, while ignoring the well-being of the majority of human beings who are not affluent, and while ignoring generations to come after we have all died, and while ignoring the welfare of non-human species of life. When one thinks about it for a moment, it is clear that the American political forces that are most loudly claiming to be aligned with God are doing the most to rupture the integrity of what they call the kingdom of God.

Hypocrisy, savagery and delusion are, of course, nothing new. Our generation has no monopoly on them. Ever since human beings have been recording their thoughts in writing, people of insight and integrity have been decrying the ways of the powerful who have lost sight of the Dao, the principles of Tian, the will of God, the unity of Brahman or the Buddha nature innate in all beings throughout the universe. That there is nothing new in the brutal assault on the fabric of being by those who lose sight of the whole makes that assault no less outrageous and heartbreaking.

There is an alternative to the blindness of power and partiality. It is often called love. Poets, philosophers, visionaries and psychologists have written about love in countless ways. Many call it atonement—at-one-ment, being at one with all there is. Rabindranath speaks of love as an essential feature of the harmony that characterizes the life lived well. He writes in Creative Unity:

The quality of the infinite is not the magnitude of extension, it is the Advaitam, the mystery of Unity. Facts occupy endless time and space; but the truth comprehending them all has no dimension; it is One. Wherever our heart touches the One, in the small or the big, it finds the touch of the infinite.

Being in touch with this infinite, Rabindranath goes on to say, is true joy, a happiness that can be neither compromised nor diminished. It is that joy alone that makes life worth living. It is the absence of that joy that makes living life worthless. It is a wish for just exactly that sort of integrated and harmonious happiness in 2011, and in all years follow, that goes to everyone out of the living silence.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, December 31, 2010 at 14:11

Posted in Faith and practice

Spiritual socialism

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The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul. Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. With great power, the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all. For neither was there among them any who lacked, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made to each, according as anyone had need. (Acts 4:32–35)

This description of the early Christian community makes it pretty clear that that community was committed to redistributing wealth. Those who had property divested themselves of it and gave to those who were in need. Ownership of property was communal, not individual. “Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” This model of the early Christian community has been emulated repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity. Most monastic orders within Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism have required a vow of poverty of those who are called to that life and have urged the laity to give ten percent of their income to charitable institutions that provide for those in various kinds of need. A number of Protestant communities over the years have favored communal to individual ownership. Those that have not insisted on communal ownership have emphasized the importance of living a life of material simplicity so that one does not waste resources on providing luxury to oneself while others are lacking the requisites of life. The system of social welfare in the United States and European countries was founded largely on Christian principles. The institution of the hospital, a place where the sick and injured could go to be healed, regardless of their ability to pay, has Christian origins. The notion that no one in need of healing should go unhealed lies at the heart of Christian culture.

Somehow, Christian values in the United States have taken a turn from a culture of providing for the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the injured and the needy to a culture of supporting plutocracy—a system of being governed by the wealthy. This change has been relatively recent. One of my grandfathers was a Congregationalist minister voted for Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times as the candidate of The Socialist Party. Norman Thomas, a pacifist as well as a socialist, was the son of a Presbyterian minister from Ohio, and he followed in his father’s footsteps by going to seminary and being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. As a Christian, Thomas felt called to advocate for workers whose lives were often miserable because of the policies of the companies they worked for. Like Norman Thomas, my grandfather espoused socialist ideals as long as he lived. He was not, however, a registered member of the Socialist Party. Rather, he was a registered Republican, for the Republican Party was for a hundred years or so the home of political and economic progressives, idealists and visionaries. It was also the party of theologically liberal Christians—those who welcomed the methods and discoveries of science and critical thinking and reading the Bible historically and critically and mythologically rather than literally.

As the Republican Party has drifted from its historical roots of compassion for the poor and the weak to an increasingly mean-spirited culture, so has much of American Protestantism.There are, fortunately, exceptions. Among Evangelical Christians, one finds such ministers as Jim Wallis and the Sojourners movement, which is in many ways a continuation of the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Sojourners movement is in many ways the antithesis of a kind of Christianity that has evolved in the United States after the Second World War and which has come to be called the prosperity gospel, a theological view based on the conviction that God rewards the faithful with wealth and prosperity.

No doubt the conviction of Oral Roberts and other Protestant ministers of the 1950s that America’s post-war prosperity was a sign of God’s favor became combined with the conviction that socialism is just a step away from Communism and that Communism is anti-religious and ungodly. If Communism is ungodly, the logic went, then Christians, being godly, must be aligned with those who oppose Communism—and socialism. This has led to the paradox that American Christians following this doctrine must feel uneasy with the early Christian community, and with a great deal of traditional Christianity. It is not only the early Christian community that must bring discomfort; even Jesus Christ himself must be regarded with suspicion. Passages such as the following must be very worrying to many an American Christian:

18 A certain ruler asked him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus asked him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one—God. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ ‘Don’t murder,’ ‘Don’t steal,’ ‘Don’t give false testimony,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” 21 He said, “I have observed all these things from my youth up.” 22 When Jesus heard these things, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was very rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he became very sad, said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Gospel according to Luke)

If one were in a mood to pray, the contents of a prayer in these times might be that Americans would find their way back to the essentially socialist values of Christianity and of much of early America. And, not forgetting to pray for those most in need of redemption, one might pray also for the repentance of billionaires who have taken control of what used to be a democratic republic. For, as Jesus said, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24–25)

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, November 22, 2010 at 21:07

Posted in Faith and practice

Forgiveness

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manaḥ śamaṃ na gṛhṇāti na prītisukham aśnute
na nidrāṃ na dhṛtiṃ yāti dveṣaśalye hṛdi sthite

The mind does not attain peace, nor does it experience the pleasure of joy,
nor does it find rest or stability, so long as the arrow of hatred is stuck in the heart.

Those words from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra 6.3 are part of a chapter dedicated to the necessity of cultivating forgiveness and patience. Being the victim of someone else’s harmful behavior, whether the harm was deliberately engineered or the by-product of carelessness and negligence, is pain enough to deal with. Nothing good comes of magnifying the pain by harboring ill will or desires of revenge. When people are harmful to others, says Śāntideva, is precisely when they most need our compassion, our active attempts to alleviate their suffering. Given that contented people do not try to bring misery to others and indeed usually try to establish harmony with others, the best strategy for finding relief from those who are making others miserable is to help them find relief from what is making them miserable.

In the past few days statements have been made by well-known people that show very little understanding of the importance of forgiveness as part of establishing peace and well-being for everyone. One statement was Sarah Palin’s plea to Muslims to drop their plans to establish a mosque near the site of where the World Trade Center used to be in New York. The other was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s strongly expressed disagreement with the decision of the Scottish Parliament last year to allow Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to return to Libya rather than die of a terminal illness in a Scottish prison. Mass murderers like al-Megrahi, said PM Cameron, do not deserve compassion.

Both Mrs. Palin and PM Cameron seemed to be voicing the views of those who say forgiveness of wrong-doing would add to the burden of pain borne by those whose loved ones died in the airplane bombed over Lockerbie or in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. What they apparently believe is that people are more likely to be pained and vexed by compassion than by their own inability to cultivate compassion. But that is surely not universally true. Without a doubt there are those who have found transformative comfort as a result of finding a way to love those who have harmed their loved ones, just as there are those who will carry their bitterly vindictive feelings with them to the grave. The range of response to deep misfortune is as varied as any other aspect of being human. There is a saying in Sanskrit that hardship is like a rapidly spinning grindstone; when clay is touched to it, it crumbles, but when gold is touched to it, it gets polished. When it was announced that al-Megrahi was being allowed to return to Libya on compassionate grounds, some Scots who had lost loved ones rejoiced at the nobility of the decision, while others ground their teeth and spoke venomous words. It is disappointing to see public figures who have attracted the attention of wide audiences siding only with those who are unable to find forgiveness in their hearts.

The displeasure that has been voiced by those who would like to prevent a mosque from being built in the neighborhood of what has come to be called Ground Zero is psychologically understandable, but it is such a raw emotion that it is difficult to know what kind of decision would not be offensive to those who harbor their unwillingness to forgive. The issue seems to be that placing a mosque near Ground Zero would be a desecration of the memories of those who died. But what distance would be far enough away for these people? Should the nearest mosque be at least a mile away? Or should it be off the island of Manhattan? Outside greater New York City area? One hundred miles away? There are probably some individuals so overcome with bitterness that they would like to see an America entirely free of any publicly visible signs of Muslim worship. Should they be the ones whose feelings determine public policy? If so, one can hardly imagine a deeper tragedy for American culture, since it would be a sure sign of the death of the values that lay at the heart of the formation of the American republic.

There is no calculus for compassion. No one is any more or less deserving of compassion than anyone else. Everyone who is in pain needs relief. Those who cannot forgive need the help of those who can. Those who blame others and attack those whom they blame need the help of those who have no need to find scapegoats. Those who suffer from the arrow of hatred stuck in their hearts need the help of those who have learned to love. Contrary to what some theology says, love is not a grace. It is not a gift that God gives to some and withholds from others. It is a skill. It is something one can learn to do. Like all skills, it is one that improves with practice. The more one loves, the more one can love. The less one forgives, the less one can forgive. The less one can forgive, the more unbearable becomes the burden of life.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, July 22, 2010 at 14:47

Posted in Faith and practice

Wear it as long as thou canst

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There is a widely told, entirely apocryphal, story that at one time George Fox and William Penn met. At this meeting William Penn expressed concern over wearing a sword (a standard part of dress for people of Penn’s station), and how this was not in keeping with Quaker beliefs. George Fox responded, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Later, according to the story, Penn again met Fox, but this time without the sword. Penn then said, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.” Though this story is entirely unfounded, it serves as an instructive parable about Penn’s Quaker beliefs. (From Brief History of William Penn)

Myth is usually more suitable than history at conveying ideals and values. The often-repeated story of George Fox’s advice to William Penn illustrates well the Quaker approach to the Quaker testimonies, for it shows that the testimonies to strive for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship are not approached as absolute commandments but as ideals toward which each individual Friend moves as she is led by her reflections on her own experiences. If one’s experiences have been of the unhappy consequences of violence, and if one reflects on the nature of violence, then one is likely to seek alternatives to the violent solutions to problems that present themselves. At one point in one’s life, one may seek to protect oneself by having a sword (or a pistol or an assault rifle or a strong army or a nuclear arsenal), but if one comes to see the very stockpiling of weapons as a threat to peace, one may follow the example of William Penn in the mythical story and leave one’s sword at home. One may seek to protect oneself by being the kind of person others are unlikely to attack.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Quakers are not invariably pacifists who refuse military service. The peace testimony, like all of the Quaker testimonies, has been formulated in different ways in different times and is always evolving as different communities of Friends discover what the demands of their particular circumstances are. (There is a nice blog posting about the testimonies on The Quaker Ranter). Typically, the testimony is worded in a way that draws upon the words of George Fox, who wrote in his journal that he testified to the Commonwealth Commissioners that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars…”

The occasion, or as we might now say, the causality of all wars is complex. Among the causes are such external factors as social injustices and maldistribution of the world’s resources. More fundamental causes are the internal psychological factors that give rise to social and economic injustices. Xenophobia and other fears of those who act and believe differently give rise to such behaviors are invading the homelands of others, colonizing others, converting others to one’s own religion and marginalizing those who don’t comply. The ancient Hebrews justified their genocidal campaigns in the land of Canaan by portraying the inhabitants of those lands, the Philistines and so on, as godless barbarians and uncultured savages. To this very day, the word “Philistine” is used to describe an uncouth person who has no higher interests; stereotypes die hard if they ever die at all. The reputation of the Philistines has been permanently smeared by the negative stereotyping enshrined in self-congratulatory Hebrew propaganda.

Unfortunately, there is no need to go back to the time of Joshua to find examples of brutality justified. The United States of America has become the land it currently is through several centuries of genocide, enslavement and colonization, most of it justified on the grounds that the victims of European territorial expansion were either benefiting from the largesse and advanced culture of the Europeans or so backwards that they deserved to be killed or banished to nearly uninhabitable lands. The behaviors of the Americans of European descent were rooted primarily in greed, fear of the other and ignorance.

Buddhists would use the terms greed, hatred and delusion to identify the occasion of war. These psychological traits—not other people—are the occasion of war. Since all human beings have to some extent inherited the characteristics that enabled their ancestors to survive long enough to procreate, and since those survival mechanisms of earlier generations were usually manifestations of greed and fear and benighted thinking, most human beings are genetically predisposed to those traits. The fact that those traits worked in the past, when the human population was very small, is no indication that they will continue to work in the present and the future. We may have come to the point where the very traits that promoted the survival of our ancerstors will promote out own demise, perhaps even the guaranteed extitnction of our descendants.

During the past year I have been reading the Bible every day. I have been following a lectionary that assigns passages to read every day. There are many kinds of lectionary, but the one I am following now is one that begins with the book of genesis and reads straight through to the book of revelations; by following it one can read the entire Bible in 365 days. I have to say that most of the reading has been unpleasant and disturbing. There is so much warfare, so much rationalized cruelty, so many prayers for the destruction of one’s enemies. Who can read a passage such as “Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, he will be happy who rewards you, as you have served us. Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock” without wincing at the cry for bloody revenge against those who have treated the Hebrews in Jerusalem as the Hebrews under Joshua treated the inhabitants of Jericho? So much of the sacred writings of the Hebrews—then the Christians who had inherited much of the mentality and many of the enemies of the Hebrews, and then the Muslims whose sacred revelations continue in the same general spirit—focuses on external enemies. The message repeated constantly is that the world would be peaceful if only other people were not evildoers bent on tormenting the lovers of God.

There are alternatives to the war whoops found in so much of the sacred literature of the world. There have always been people who have realized that our greatest enemies are not the evildoers from other lands but rather our own minds and the habits we have acquired through the indoctrination of mainstream society provided by war-mongering governments. Most of the Stoic philosophers of the Hellenistic world realized that. With only a few scattered exceptions, almost all the literature of Buddhism and Vedānta and Daoism is an invitation to find the true enemies that disturb the peace, namely, the acquisitiveness, the fear and suspicion of others, the anger that arises when things don’t go as one had hoped, and the hasty conclusions that are formed through lazy and self-centered thinking.

Although Quakerism was originally a form of Christianity based on a deep familiarity with the sacred texts of the Jews and the Christians, many modern Quakers find more inspiration in the inner-enemy theme of Asian religious literature than in the outer-enemy preoccupations of so much of the literature of the Abrahamic religions. The writings and sayings of Hindus, Buddhist and Daoists often require less hermeneutical manipulation to bring them in line with the inward leadings to peace and simplicity of life and thought that seems obviously called for as we emerge from one of the most destructive and soul-destroying centuries in human history.

Is the story of William Penn and George Fox historically accurate? Probably not, but that is not the best question to ask anyway. The better question might be “Is that the right story to tell in our times?” By my lights, it is.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 12:29

Posted in Faith and practice

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 puirity 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.

TheIdeas 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