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Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Danger of Equanimity

Equanimity is prized in Buddhism. Some would say it's the second biggest goal of Buddhist life and practice - the ability to be unswayed by things that happen to and around you. One of the best illustrations of the concept is a Zen story about a notoriously violent military officer who bursts into a Zen monastery and demands the monks bow to him. The abbot refuses to do so. The military officer says to the abbot, "Don't you know that I can run you through with this sword without blinking an eye?" The abbot then replies, "And don't you know that I can allow you to run me through with that sword without blinking an eye?" As these stories tend to go, the officer resigned from the military immediately and became a monk.
Total equanimity is one of those goals that I tend to think of as "rhetorical goals." In other words, like a rhetorical question, these are fine goals but nobody really expects any reasonable person will achieve them. The danger comes in when some people find equanimity to be so valuable that they start to pretend they have achieved it. It's a kind of spiritual bypassing that people believe will allow them to achieve lofty (and perhaps impossible) spiritual goals by "acting as if." What really happens is that they develop all manner of physical symptoms because of the feelings they are denying.

Dog Dragging Butt GIFs | Tenor

Suppose, for some reason that I simply cannot fathom, you decide to redecorate your living room with white leather furniture and a white carpet. That night I go out and eat all of the spicy food I can find and drink a lot of beer. In an intoxicated, urgent need to use a bathroom, I come and crap all over your white living room furniture and carpet, finishing the whole thing off by dragging my ass across said carpet like a dog trying to drain its anal gland. If you believe you could look at me and say, "I was just glad to be of service," you are more full of shit than I was. That is spiritual bypassing on an epic scale.

As we currently exist in varying levels of isolation, denying the feelings you may be having about it will backfire. You feel how you feel. What you do about it is the important thing, learning to cope is the important thing. Pretending it isn't bothering you is not the answer. If you need more proof, on am on my way to the local Mexican restaurant now and will be over in a few hours. Just leave the front door unlocked..

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Purifying Karma

Last week I wrote about karma, about the fact that evil does in fact exist and is the consequence of actions that we, collectively, have taken. When we cage people at our border and hold them indefinitely, we have all participated in an evil action. Then when we forget about them during a pandemic because they are no longer "newsworthy," and we cannot look beyond our own immediate interests, we magnify that evil exponentially. Our first instinct may be to excise the evil doers, but the problem is that karma is collective and so excising one or one hundred of us isn't going to solve the problem. We need to shift the culture.

You may be thinking that shifting the culture sounds great, but it isn't easy. In truth, it's not difficult by it isn't fast, either, and we are an impatient lot. We want our solutions now, and available in microwave safe packaging. If a proposed solution takes longer than our lifetimes so that we won't get to see the results, our interest wanes. Suddenly the children and grandchildren we claim to love aren't as important as they were before - at least in terms of what we are willing to invest in their future. If you doubt that, count the climate deniers among us and sigh.

What will purify our karma and reduce the evil among us is compassion practice and compassionate action. Many spiritual traditions have practices we can engage that will increase the compassion in the practitioner. Increasing our compassion will in turn energize compassionate action. You can find a practice that suits you by googling "Compassion Practice." Start today, and continue for the rest of your life. I promise you will see changes in yourself, and in those around you. There is nothing to lose, and everything to gain!

Thursday, April 9, 2020

An Uncomfortable Truth

Liberals and progressives don't like to talk about evil. We like to deceive ourselves by calling evil something else. We try to borrow the idea of unskillfulness from Buddhism, but if we are honest it
only works part of the time - perhaps because the concept doesn't translate well. If we say, "he murdered her, and it wasn't very skillful," it sounds more like he didn't kill her efficiently than his behavior was problematic. We talk about separating person from behavior, a solid concept, but we take it too far when we slide into absolving people of personal responsibility for their actions, no matter how heinous. Personal responsibility is essential if we are to construct any kind of workable morality.

I am convinced we need to return to using the word "evil" to describe actions that are evil! If a
man walks into a daycare center and shoots everybody that is an evil act. If they stir fry other
people for dinner, that's an evil act. If someone repeatedly lies, cheats, defrauds, and harms others, those are evil actions and taken together they are a pattern of evil behavior that is cause for great concern. Cultures develop values and laws, and those who continually and intentionally violate those norms are participating in evil. Are they, themselves, evil? My honest answer is that I don't know. I don't believe that worrying about whether Bob has participated in enough habitually evil actions to have earned his Dr. Evil merit badge is especially helpful. It may be for some an interesting theoretical exercise, but it doesn't really change what has happened or offer us a way to move forward. We get sidetracked in a discussion of what to do about this person we have labeled as evil rather that look for a solution to the problem of evil.

You may be asking yourself why any of this matters. I have come to believe that it is of utmost importance because I believe that karma, in a collective sense, is real. Karma is, quite simply, an understanding of cause and effect. Some years ago at a public appearance, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was asked what the Vietnamese people had done to generate the negative karma necessary to be invaded first by the French and then by the United States. He responded by saying it wasn't the Vietnamese karma that caused those colonial atrocities, it was everybody's karma that caused them. It was collective karma that caused those illegal invasions, not individual karma. I have a hard time with the idea that a child dies shortly after birth because of some offense she committed in a previous life, but it makes perfect sense to me that she died because of choices we have made to spend money on war rather than medical research to reduce infant mortality - and that, my friends, is karma. It's not that some powerful agent killed the child to punish us or her, it's that the child died because we made choices and established priorities that led us to not have the information and technology whereby we could have saved her.

These ideas don't only apply in life or death situations. When we choose to tolerate corruption, our karma will be that corruption will increase. When we choose to play footloose and fancy free with the truth, we will be surrounded by lies. When we choose to tolerate infantile behavior from our leaders, we will get childish leaders whose behavior is a national embarrassment. When we
ignore the plight of the poor and continue to oppress people, they will rise up. When we choose to divert funds from education and healthcare to the defense industry, we will raise dumb, sick people. Karma is common sense.

When we ignore warnings of a pandemic and cripple our pandemic response capability so the President can pump more money to his friends in industry, we get corona virus. If we have elected an unqualified leader, our response is crippled and people die. This isn't about politics, it's about karma. Jesus said it this way - you reap what you sow. If you wonder how we as a people got here, wherever the here of the moment might be, just look at where we have been. Next week, I will look at how to fix the mess we find ourselves in.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

We Can't Afford to Deny Evil

For a long time, I was one of those liberals who tried to deny that evil existed. Many of us do. I would say that we need to separate person from behavior, and I still believe that to be true. I also ran to the Buddhist notion of actions being either skillful or unskillful. The problem with that perspective is that it waters everything down to the point where it is meaningless. "Did you walk into a home and kill a family of seven in cold blood? That wasn't very skillful!" When you read that out loud, the absurdity of it slaps you in the face.

In these trying times of Covid-19, we are hearing about more than a little evil. Whenever you act in a way that denies the truth, your actions are evil. I cannot judge if you are an evil person, but I can tell you that you are doing evil things. Every one of our current President's press briefings are evil. I would submit that you would be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn't manipulated the truth and thereby engaged in evil behavior. When people attack Asian Americans because they blame them for this pandemic, they are displaying stupidity and engaging in evil. When the Governor of Georgia said two days ago that he had only discovered 24 hours earlier that the corona virus is transmitted before people show symptoms, he was engaging in evil. You don't have to engage in genocide to be evil, although genocide certainly is evil. All you have to do it lie, cheat, steal, bend the truth, misrepresent something, do something to get ahead of another person at their expense. It really isn't a difficult concept, and we all know right from wrong.

We need to reclaim the idea of evil because at this point in our history we have lost almost all moral foundation. Anything goes, and the people who have led the anything goes movement are those who used to claim the moral high ground - conservatives, evangelicals, republicans. Nobody is really immune from responsibility for the trend. Many of us sat back slack jawed and allowed it to happen because we become preoccupied with being kind and not hurting anyone's feelings. Nonsense. If you don't want your actions to be characterized as evil, don't do evil things. Furthermore, if you don't want to be accused of evil actions then don't look the other way when people around you do evil things. It's really quite simple.