Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tough love, bleeding heart

It's all Nacho's fault. Really. He had to go and post a provocative topic over at his award-winning blog Woodmoor Village Zendo entitled "Are you a Buddhist?" I was thinking about the difference between "being a Buddhist", "being a Buddhist", and "being a Buddhist".

Anyone, at least in the West, can shave their head. Or wear a robe. Or learn some liturgical materials. You can find a Sangha somewhere, most likely, where you can take refuge, take your precepts, or even start on the path to ordination. You can get some beads, puts your hands together in gassho, read and memorize portions of sutras, and even engage in debates over the history and philosophy of different forms of Buddhism. Maybe even become a vegetarian. These things all sound very Buddhist, I suppose.

Then there are the affectations. These may be real or just the perception of others when looking at self-proclaimed Buddhists. There is the "I love everything Asian" type who eats, sleeps, and breathes the culture from which their tradition arose to the point where they even develop a foreign accent. There is the Zombie-Buddhist, who may simply be a nihilist slacker hiding behind the austere image of supposedly "Zen-like" passionless indifference (what some have labeled attachment to non-attachment). And of course we can't forget the wimpy ninny. Nor are any of these behaviors or affectations necessarily mutually exclusive.

To what degree these behaviors and stereotypes are legitimate, or legitimately "Buddhist", is something others can argue about if they wish.

Still, I was thinking about the image projected onto (and possibly by?) Buddhists in some quarters as being wimpy. I think it may come from failing to parse "weak" and "meek" in the sense that it is one thing to forgive or be patient when you are in a position of perceived powerlessness and when you display such qualities from a position of strength. I don't know how many people who wear little Buddha pendants, who chant mantras, or who read Tricycle are or are not, in fact, wimpy ninnies or nihilistic egoists. I certainly don't have any right to cast the first stone at the glass house I call home. But, in my (needs to be more) humble opinion, there is nothing sissified or wuss-like about learning to surrender to, realize, accept, and promote boundless compassion.

It's so easy to say or think that if someone is advocating "Love, love, love" that she or he must be an idealistic weenie who needs a dose of the cold, hard, and harsh nature of reality. But that's just it. The Buddhist path is not one of shutting yourself off from the world, or transcending it in these sense of ignoring it or not caring about it. I've written before, as have many others, that it is quite the opposite. In the Mahayana tradition, for example, the Bodhisattva ideal involves learning to hear the cries of the world, to see and truly appreciate the nature of suffering. You are not building up walls, you are tearing them down and making yourself even more open to the circumstances which tend to buffet people about emotionally and mentally. Liberation comes from facing the causes of suffering - birth, sickness and injury, old age, and death - not from hiding from them. You don't just get a "dose" of reality - you get the whole thing.

Cultivating love, loving-kindness, metta - whatever name you prefer - in the face of such exposure to the best and the worst in humanity, for all of humanity, for all sentient beings - THAT is tough. Tough love. But you keep going - learning to allow, learning to accept, learning to appreciate. There is a popular imagery of doing something so long, so hard, and with such extreme resolve, that you are said to do it "until you bleed". This is a powerful image because A) blood is equated with life and vitality and our most intimate and precious resource(s) and B) many types of repetitious physical activities wear and crack the skin until the person does literally bleed. As Spike says in a memorable line from an episode of Buffy: "{I}t's always got to be blood... Blood is life. It's what keeps you going. Makes you warm. Makes you hard. Makes you other than dead."

Ironically, Christians should (and hopefully many due) understand this better than anyone - according to their theology and view of history, Christ was meek, loved everyone, and embraced pain and the suffering of all, born from that love, in order to save them. According the the Gospels, he loved 'til he bled.

So, then, do (many) Buddhists have bleeding hearts? Of course. You keep loving. You love until you bleed.

*caveat: sometimes i see how hard it's going to be and i hesitate or stumble... i am not trying to boast here that i am always living up to what i am discussing... don't mind the bruises on my palms or the scraped knees... :o)

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