Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Just who do you think you are, anyway?

My license to thrillOften when I get the chance to interact online with others on a given topic, I ponder how my words will be perceived. Often message boards and to a lesser extent blogs are places of contention. Finding places/people that embrace respectful debate and dialogue can sometimes be a challenge. Beyond that is the tendency to be bolder online than one would be in a live meeting with other people in the same room. It can lead people to be arrogant, or in the case of the Blangha, it can make one Bodhier than thou. Virtues of such online communication include sharing ideas and information, getting to know people who we might otherwise be ignorant about/misunderstand, and to speak up for our values and share the wisdom (such as it is...or isn't) of our unique perspectives. It can be difficult, though, to present a view free of ego (here used as 'a sense of true separation from everything else' or 'identity' as opposed to 'a reasonable description of an individual' or 'label'). Speaking with authority and humility is practically a contradiction in terms. I think it is all about the motivation behind the communication. To take a page from one of my contributions to a great post over at Woodmoor Village Zendo on speaking out/opposing ignorant loudmouths...

I personally don’t think a monk's robe necessarily reinforces the ego. In fact, I see it as a submission to a greater virtue/cause. The person is no longer “Larry Jackson, the former repair shop owner and father of three” when he dons the robe, lights the candles and incense on the altar, and sits at the head of the assembly. He is ‘no longer Larry’ but he is also not ‘no longer Larry’. For a time, he is the voice the of the Dharma, the image of the Buddha, and the head of the Sangha. It is form or voluntary servitude, allowing the space for this higher calling to exist alongside the ego and to represent more than just his personal identity. Now does that mean that in a technical sense the monk is not really Larry? No, but he has taken on the mantle of something greater than his own sense of self. The same is true of the fireman wearing his coat and helmet.

While it may seem simple to say that one way to avoid self-righteousness is to speak not from the ego but on behalf of a greater virtue/more inclusive perspective, it is also the case that often the ego slips back in through the backdoor. Instead of being in voluntary servtitude to this higher calling, it gets flipped around so that the higher calling is placed in servitude to the ego. The piousness is hidden behind the title, or the outfit, or the regalia of the higher calling and becomes even more insidious and corrosive. To draw again from my submission to the aforementioned post at Woodmoor (and again co-opting it for a different use):

Reinforcing the ego (see my usage above) always leads to suffering in the end...(O)ne can transform suffering and past experiences (i.e. karmic seeds/baggage) into Bodhi and merit, but to do so in a way that leads to true liberation one must surrender the selfish portion. In other words, to use one’s experiences to fuel a passion for making a positive change is awesome, but doing so to try to fill some perceived gap in one’s completeness is the basis of the kind of craving/desire that leads to attachment, suffering, etc. Otherwise, while the person may fill their life with acts benefiting others (I am not disputing the value of such acts), underneath is still a suffering being who can never ‘do’ enough to fill that perceived hole in their being, and are ultimately acting out of selfishness rather than true compassion.

Unpacking this quote to fit the current context, "the road to the hell realms is paved with seemingly good intentions". That is, does the intended action/speech/thought recognize the worth of all sentient beings, or does it fuel your opinion of yourself? Are you looking for credit or recognition for the intended action/speech/though or is it worthy on its own merits? Is the action/speech/thought based in the judgement of the faults of others or in empathy and solidarity for others (the difference between destructive and constructive criticism). To make use of something I posted at the...well...glacier-kind-of-slow forums at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship that is relevant to the topic:

Greed, hatred, and ignorance come from the idea of division and separateness. If you truly see everything as interconnected, how you 'possess' some 'thing'? How do you fail to have compassion toward some 'one'? Seeing things as they are (interdependent and co-arising from emptiness) dispels ignorance. Ignorance, greed, and hatred are the children of delusion. We have the false view that we are not whole and therefore we crave that which we think will complete us. It is this craving that is the root of what is often termed ‘attachment’. We give them (ignorance, greed, and hatred) their power by continuing our delusions, and we can take it away by dispelling them...

Desire in and of itself is not a bad thing, nor is promoting change. Passion is not ‘bad’ either. It really all gets down to perspective and motivation. As mentioned, if we think we 'need' something to be whole or complete, then we will crave that thing (these cravings are often simply referred to as ‘desires’ which can be confusing). There are two primary problems to address...

First, it gets back to the delusion and seeing things as distinct and separate objects to be ‘possessed’ or ‘hated’. If we truly accept interdependence/co-arising and emptiness, then one could almost imagine that we possess and are possessed of all things, but then who is the actor here? That is, who or what is possessing whom? We can extend that as well to “Who is hating whom?” It is a false dichotomy. We (collectively) simply are. So, then, when we are motivated by and craving and guided by delusion, then we run the risk of being trapped again by greed, anger, and ignorance even if we believe we are trying to do the right thing (i.e. self-righteousness, or in Buddhist lingo, being ‘Bodhier than thou’)

Second, a major hurdle is the idea of “I am trying to”. Obviously on a relative level we can distinguish sets of matter and energy with unique histories that we refer to as individuals, but because we tend to see them as separate and non-interrelated objects, talking about “I will” this and that often sets us up with the wrong perspective. It tends to support the aforementioned delusions regarding emptiness and interrelatedness, and leads us back to the three poisons again. So, it helps to try it just with the collective, non-pronoun form. Not “I am transforming greed, anger, and ignorance”, just “Transforming greed, anger, and ignorance” or “The three poisons will be transformed.” This is why Buddhist teaching emphasize “no-self”, i.e. no intrinsic, non-interrelated, enduring and non-changing self.

So then ‘greed’ isn’t about wanting things to be different. It is about doing things from a selfish motivation fueled by the delusion that things are truly separate and can be possessed or attained and that this will fill some hole we think we perceive in ourselves. Wanting to feed a starving child because you empathize with her and see your fundamental relationship is not greedy. Doing it to feel boost your self-esteem is. Hatred is definitely related to not liking yourself, but the kind of transformation being discussed involves acceptance, not rejection. You don’t try to embrace or deny the ego, you simply see it for what it is. As for transforming ignorance, it is a shrewd person who realizes what she/he doesn’t know. Admitting our ignorance is the first step to wisdom.

So then, here's to keeping a realistic perspective and appropriate attitude in our activities. Nothing makes you feel more "Bodhier than thou" than preaching about it to others. I can feel my ego trying to feed on what I've written here. So I'll end with some words of wisdom from others...

He who treads the Path in earnest
Sees not the mistakes of the world;
If we find fault with others
We ourselves are also in the wrong.

-The Sutra of Hui Neng



  1. Very interesting writing, and nice looking blog too.
    You talk a lot about the ego and the self. Do you see ego as a negative force?

    I have to admit, my writing is all about the self. It is a story of selfishness. With an ultimately unpleasant ending.

    Perhaps you might like it though.



  2. " Very interesting writing, and nice looking blog too.
    You talk a lot about the ego and the self. Do you see ego as a negative force?"

    There are different uses for that term. The dictionar gives a couple of standard definitions:

    1 the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world
    2 the one of the three divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory that serves as the organized conscious mediator between the person and reality especially by functioning both in the perception of and adaptation to reality

    I distinguish from this general notion to subtle distinctions which I use when talking about the ego in terms of Buddhist teachings:

    3 a sense of true separation from everything else; viewing such separation is integral to identity
    4 a reasonable description of an individual; viewing such a description as a convenient label

    So, now you are talking about 'the self', which may or may not correspond to one or the either uses of the term ego I define above.

    Anyway, I don't see the ego as a negative force, but, if we don't pay attention, it can trick us into a very biased, unrealistic, and ultimately unhealthy view of the world. So rather than a 'foe to be conquered', I see the ego as something to be recognized without accepting or rejecting.

    "I have to admit, my writing is all about the self. It is a story of selfishness. With an ultimately unpleasant ending."

    Creative fiction? I always thought that it would be an ideal use of a blog, with serial installments. I just figured I would never keep up with the stories I wrote or get writer's block from the pressure. Thanks for sharing.


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