Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thich Nhat Hahn, Tenzin Guyatso, Deepak Chopra and the like are all full of it

PublicImage by Luiza via Flickr
Lest you think by the title, "Thich Nhat Hahn, Tenzin Gyatso*, Deepak Chopra and the like are all full of it", that it is a cleverly misleading expression based on the ambiguity of the term "it", let me spell out what I meant -- BS. That is, they are full of BS. You know it and I know it, but no one will admit to knowing it. Chew that over for a moment. Let the knee-jerk reaction fade. Be really introspective, beyond the expectation you have set up for yourself about how you are supposed to feel or what you are supposed to think. Tap into the raw feed. Find that place you've buried and smoothed over with politeness, a sense of what other Eastern-oriented spiritual people expect you to think, the power of (spiritual/religious) authority, and even whatever respect you have for these gentlemen. Go on, open up that hidden box of repressed cynicism and drop those drawn out mental gymnastics where you try to rationalize how some of their teaching could make sense if they are properly framed for a particular interpretation.

Just let it out. Those judgments and reactions that scream things such as "It may be pleasant but it's pie-in-the-sky optimism and totally unrealistic. That kind of wishful thinking is hopelessly naive and cannot really work in the real world. It's a kind of sheltered delusion for those who can't cope. It's nice for those in comfort and who have the luxury of Utopian fantasies, but come on! A lot of what he says makes sense but that, that is just ludicrous." Wait until you have uncovered and released something along these lines, then read on below.

It can be hard to do. To admit that part of us thinks that some great leader or teacher that we admire or respect may be a little daft or naive about some things. We may suppress it or find it endearing. Ahh, this part of what she or he believes or advocates is not realistic but we need a good dose of such unfiltered optimism now and then to boost our batteries in a difficult and challenging world. It's an impossible standard, an unachievable ideal, but this individual really deserved to be the standard-bearer for such values. We could all used something or someone to believe in, a bright star to guide our way.

How egotistical and patronizing can you get? These individuals dedicate their lives to living and promoting particular ideals and you poo-poo them as if they were little children. You try to find some way to not take them too seriously on some of their teachings because honestly, only an idiot would really believe them or live by them. By re-framing the teachings. By making them guidelines for aspirations. By suggesting they may have worked for certain cultures and periods of history but not our own. Yikes! I have hit on this before, quoting a letter to President Bush by Hanh. I wrote:

He chose to see Bush as his brother and to appeal to his humanity and his divine/Buddha nature rather than simply mocking him or using angry accusations listing his personal failures and their consequences. So what do we make of this and similar letters, speeches, and other forms of communication? It is certainly something that we can appreciate coming from Thay as he is a world renowned peace activist and Buddhist teacher, but do we really believe that letter, assuming it was received and read, made a difference? And is effectiveness the primary yardstick in cases like this? Do we read things like this and "forgive" Thich Naht Hanh for his simplicity and directness (but also see it as a little naive) because of his status and image? Or is he on the right track, and if so, in what way should we follow his example?

In particular for those who are opposed to the occupation of Iraq and those who capitalized on it politically or financially...

Can you see yourself writing a letter like that to George W. Bush? To Dick Cheney? To the David Lesar, President and CEO of Halliburton? To Erik Prince, founder and owner of Blackwater Worldwide? For the Pro-Iraq war visitors, same question but fill in the names with Nancy Pelosi, or Hillary Clinton, etc.

Or to be really blunt - does such wording make the author sound like a spacey, out-of-touch, overly naive optimist who needs a reality check and to get involved in really making a difference rather than expressing futile sentimentality? Again, I know many or probably most of you might not think that about Thich Nhat Hahn, or if the letter had come from the Dalai Lama, but what if had come from a New Age guru running a crystal therapy center? Or from a Wiccan college freshman taking a course on globalization? Or from your own desk (assuming you are not a New Age guru running a crystal therapy center or a Wiccan college freshman taking a course on globalization)? That is, if you respect Thay's letter and approach, is it because you respect him or because you respect his letter and approach?

I recently suggested something similar along these same lines:
What do you think of when you hear things like "Everything is sacred" or "Each moment is only one moment expressed in infinite ways" or "Every day, every experience, is a gift, even if we don't always appreciate it or know what to make of it." (Yes, I came up with them myself, so smirk if you wish.)

A common reaction in Western (-influenced) societies is to be cynical. It sounds like nice pop psychology for the naive and the desperate or soft spiritualism for the well-healed. But for the savvy individual who lives in "the real world" of work, pain, and disappointment, it can come across as just so much nonsensical overly optimistic fluff.

Yes, perhaps we want to believe, and we may even think we believe it, but do we? Really? Our daily lives betray our underlying assumptions and the beliefs that drive them. How many of us live the life of the cynic, underneath the wrist malas or the shaved head or the polite and thoughtful exterior? These things are just another layer of the false self trying to be holy. There is a universe of difference between trying to be holy and just being holy. Or sacred. Or Christ-like, Buddha-esque, etc.

So to really believe, to really take the teachings seriously, we have to first be brutally honest about our cynicism, our hesitation, our lack of faith. It is a crucial step. And it isn't just a one time catharsis. We have to live with the doubt even as we live as if we possess certainty. Otherwise we are just building more layers of wannabe holiness on a doomed foundation. It is the only way to REALLY come to terms with and accept these counter-intuitive teachings. Until then, no matter how much we might want to protest, our gurus and wise men will, in our heart of hearts, still be full of it and we will by extension remain patronizing hypocrites.

(Addendum: There is nothing that says that these people can't occasionally BE full of it for real; either way, the best way to deal with such suspicions and hesitations is honestly.)

*Tenzin Gyatso is the name of the 14th Dalai Lama

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  1. I'm not sure if they are full of "it", but I know at least Chopra's bank account is full of money.

  2. So is Dawkins' bank account, Hitchens' bank account, etc.

    On that note, I did find info about Chopra and his finances...

    Chopra's work brings in $15 million annually. In June 1999, Time counted him among 100 heroes and icons of the century. His approach to financial matters is unique. "I do not think about money, nor do I look at bank or financial statements," he says. "I've always lived my life with the premise that when I need money, it will show up from wherever it is at the moment. I look upon money as life energy, and I look upon all transactions as exchange of energy and information and as the nurturing of relationships."

    When he does receive payment in the form of royalty checks or income from speaking engagements and other fees, he sends it to his company's accountant, who pays the bills and sends the rest to Chopra's wife, Rita, who either spends the money or invests it.

    "I never ask her questions about it, nor am I interested in knowing where it goes," he says. "My lifestyle and that of my family is not ostentatious or extravagant and we do not have expensive habits. We've lived the same way for the last 30 years. At the same time, we have never experienced a shortage of money, either psychologically or on the material level."

    Chopra has one credit card, never carries more than $300 and ensures that 10 percent of all his earnings goes to charity and nonprofit events or activities.

  3. Hi there ... this is a great post, which I'd like to thank you for sharing. Yes, I recognize that cynicism as a very deep rooted tendency that surfaces many times a day in experience. It's good to be reminded of this so I can pay further attention to seeing this for what it is.

    I love this:

    "So to really believe, to really take the teachings seriously, we have to first be brutally honest about our cynicism, our hesitation, our lack of faith. It is a crucial step. And it isn't just a one time catharsis. We have to live with the doubt even as we live as if we possess certainty"

    ... and would like to add .. opening up to what is, as it is, without hope and fear, without needing this to be a certain way, without needing to either believe or not believe ... this to me is how I use the word 'faith'. The opening to what is, as it is.

    Thank you once again ...

  4. Chodpa, your comments are appreciated. I agree with your conclusion although I express it in different terms. I tend to describe faith as becoming comfortable with, and then friends with, mystery. To go from fearing to learning to trust to finding joy in mystery. But I must confess I am still largely on the fearful/non comfortable side.


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