Monday, July 9, 2018

In the world: enlightened social responsibility.

Covered with the slim of injustice
There appears to be a contradictory challenge in many spiritual pursuits. Picking and choosing often seem like resisting just action resulting from self-inflicted karma of the past. And by resisting we attempt to alleviate our own suffering by violating the principle of karmic justice, thus contributing to more bad karma and corresponding suffering. We rarely recognize how such suffering leads to the eradication of the ego and on to a higher level of spiritual life.

On the other hand, there is a temptation to avoid appropriate social responsibility based on the flawed notion that those who suffer deserve to suffer because of their own past karma and by interdicting this process we merely exacerbate their own learning process, sparing them from spiritual advancement. Closely aligned with this avoidance comes the matter of discrimination and judgment. We know that to discriminate between good and evil seems to necessarily involvement judgment. So how do we walk this razor’s edge between enlightened social responsibility while not tampering with the karmic process leading to a heightened spiritual awareness?

There is a delicate balance between being in the world but not of the world: the fine line of being flawed and not flawed at the same time. To explicate this seeming dilemma it is perhaps helpful to turn to a couple of ancient stories and a few contemporary examples. 

The first story concerns Huike the second Chán patriarch. He was a scholar in both Buddhist scriptures and classical Chinese texts. Huike met his teacher Bodhidharma (the first patriarch) at Shaolin Temple in 528 CE when he was about 40 years of age. Legend has it that Bodhidharma initially refused to teach Huike who then stood in the snow outside Bodhidharma’s cave all night until the snow reached his waist. In the morning Bodhidharma asked him why he was still there. Huike replied that he wanted a teacher to “open the gate of the elixir of universal compassion to liberate all beings.” Bodhidharma refused, saying, “how can you hope for true religion with little virtue, little wisdom, a shallow heart, and an arrogant mind? It would just be a waste of effort.” Finally, to prove his resolve, Huike cut off his left arm and presented it to Bodhidharma as a token of his sincerity. He was then accepted as a student, and Bodhidharma changed his name from Shenguang Ji (his secular surname) to Huike, which means “Wisdom and Capacity.” Try to imagine the depth of anguish Huike must have endured prior to this that inspired him with such motivation and determination. Can any of us, in honesty, say that we show that sort of resolve?

Huike did not immediately display wisdom but instead struggled to find The Way. It took some years before he found the key that unlocked the gate of the elixir of universal compassion to liberate all beings. On one occasion Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.” Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.” “There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.” Upon hearing this Huike realized enlightenment.

The second story involves ten stages of the gradual Chán school (Soto) illustrated by Chinese Chán Master Chino Kukuan, who painted ten pictures illustrating the steps to emancipation. The movement from anguish to freedom has been depicted in many ways since Buddhism began to take shape but in essence, the key that unlocked Huike’s gate of the elixir of universal compassion is the same gate in these ten-fold stages. And that key entails a seemingly strange illusion: being liberated from the beginning yet remaining unaware until the true mind realizes it has never been imprisoned in the first place. If we are already whole, then we can’t become whole. Nevertheless, the quest to become whole and emancipated is an ageless and futile proposition because the true mind is what is seeking. Trying to find your true mind is like looking for your eyeglasses while wearing them. 

These ten pictures depict the search for an ox, an allegory for the search of our true nature. Although awakening is instantaneous, the practice, which precipitates it, may be experienced as occurring in a series of stages. This may be understood as gestation and then suddenly birth. The ox-herding pictures are an attempt to aid the progress toward enlightenment by exemplifying certain steps, which begin in darkness and proceed in stages ending in enlightenment and a return to the world (which was never left). But having gone through suffering associated with being in bondage of the mind, the return is accompanied by a radically altered view of what bondage is and an appreciation of genuine compassion.

Now we are in the world and the question becomes, “What role do we play in this vast drama of life?” Do we intercede? Or do we accept things as they are, regardless of how they appear? Do we have a responsibility to fight injustice and evil, or stand apart and watch with detachment the destruction of society? And to answer this thorny question we turn to Plato and his allegory of The Cave

Plato wrote this allegory as a part of The Republic around 380 BCE. The larger purpose of The Republic concerned Plato’s ideas of justice, as well as the order and character of both a just man and a just city-state. The Cave specifically addressed the effect of education, and the lack of it, on our true nature. The allegory is structured as a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon. The setting for the story involved people who have been imprisoned in a cave (their own mind), chained in a fixed position so they can’t move, with a fire at their back, which casts shadows on the cave wall of themselves. They are left to see only their shadows and thus come to believe they and their shadows are one and the same thing.

The two observe this situation while Socrates points out to Plato’s brother the despicable nature of the prisoners plight as well as the civil, spiritual and political obligation by those who see the truth to those remaining in bondage. When the truth is pointed out, the prisoners lash out and excoriate those who wish to free them claiming that they, instead of their intended deliverers, are right while their liberators are wrong. They would rather remain chained and protective of their convictions than be set free. Such people surround us to this day; denying what is crystal clear.

Given this conundrum, Glaucon asks Socrates why the liberators need to endure the slings and arrows of the prisoners but instead just enjoy the truth and let those in bondage remain pleased and in bondage. And it is here that Socrates states his case for a just man and his duty to society. According to Socrates/Plato, a just man is one who has found the truth and rather than “taking the money and running” returns to honor his duty to assist those trapped in their ignorance, which just happens to be the same definition the Buddha offered for a Bodhisattva: a suffering servant (also the name given to Jesus).

The Cave conjures up the antithesis of just men in the contemporary characters of congressional members who do “take the money and run,” and of Paul Ryan who reflects the teachings of Ayn Rand who saw little need for government. In his eyes, there are “takers,” dependent on the entitlements of government. The view of a just man and his duty to society held by these gentlemen (and a host of others) was the opposite of the view held by Plato. Just let them eat cake (Qu’ils mangent de la brioche in French) is their mantra.

So back to the questions: “What role do we play in this vast drama of life.” Do we intercede? Or do we accept things as they are, regardless of how they appear? Do we have a responsibility to fight injustice and evil, or stand apart and watch with detachment the destruction of society? To many, the answer moves along the path of self (ego) preservation and the easy way: the safe way where they can avoid challenges to their tightly held dogmas of destruction. To them, there is a clear right and a corresponding clear wrong: “makers” and “takers.  But there is another way: the way of the just Bodhisattva who fights for the rights of those still in bondage, trapped by the shadows of the mind, in spite of the slights and arrows cast at them. They have seen a light of truth and know it is not theirs to possess. They gladly become suffering servants because they have been in bondage themselves and know in their marrow how ignorance is not bliss. When they see injustice, evil and self-destructive actions taking place, they do intercede and fight for those unable to fight against the tyranny of the mind and are covered with the slime imposed on them by those who care only for their own profit regardless of inflicted harm to others. 

There seems to be a subtle and fine line between liberating people in physical bondage and bondage of the mind. We must fight for those who are physically imprisoned in one way or another, be it oppression of race, gender, sexual preference, politics, religion, finances or any other form of unjust discrimination, yet recognize that until people are freed from bondage of the mind, there will never be ultimate freedom and liberty for all. The mind is everything! We must be in the world but not of the world.  If we, who have endured suffering and found release, don’t help those in need, we too will continue as doomed to a hell we deserve.

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