Articles

October 1, 2016.

At the Root of the Problem There is Fear

By Rev. Master Seikai

The presidential election of 2016 is upon us. Certainly it has been the ugliest one in my lifetime; my memory extends back to the election of 1964. There has been quite a bit of commentary in the various types of print and on-line media about why the political climate in America has deteriorated to the extent that it has, why facts and truth no longer seem particularly relevant to political discourse, and why the presidential candidate of one of the two major political parties is a bombastic, narcissistic, shameless speaker of ridicule, insults and untruth. We can peel away the layers of why this is so, going from the most superficial, obvious reasons, to the less apparent but more causative forces which are at work, down to the core issues of why people behave as they do, the realm of psychology. That is usually where the analysis stops—just short of the spiritual, which is the essence of who we are.

I’m not a journalist and cannot write with any authority about the political theories and forces at work in America and the western world in the 21st century. By nature, I look at the core reasons why things are the way they are—my realm is the spiritual. Rarely does the world produce a person who is both engaged in politics and social causes on the one hand, and is rooted in a deeply spiritual view of human affairs on the other. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was one of those rare human beings. Of the hundreds of Gandhi quotes which were recorded during his life, this is the one which seems to have the most bearing on what is happening today: “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but really it is fear.”

Gandhi was addressing the political situation of his day in India. India was beginning to work for independence from Great Britain, and was going through the difficult transition of throwing off colonial rule and all the many forms of oppression and subjugation of its people which came with it. One of the key elements in India’s independence movement was breaking the salt monopoly which the British held at that time. Salt is one of life’s indispensable commodities: we cannot live without it. If a political power can monopolize salt, they then wield considerable power over the people dependent upon it. Gandhi himself showed people how to make salt in defiance of British authority, and was jailed for it. He went on a hunger strike in prison. Eventually he was released and the movement continued. Due to the efficacy of the non-violent resistance to subjugation which he advocated, the independence movement slowly gained momentum and force, and finally succeeded in 1947.

So putting Gandhi’s quote into context, he was in the midst of a struggle on the part of a vast portion of humanity, the Indian people, against a colonial power, Great Britain—a classic us and them situation. Under such circumstances there is always hate, and it usually works in both directions, from the victim towards the perpetrator and vice versa. As we all know, hatred is an intensified form of anger, and it usually ends in violence. Actually it doesn’t end, it continues, given that the victimized party seeks revenge in the form of another act or wave of violence, thus reversing the roles and becoming the perpetrator. Unless someone stops the endless cycle with understanding, self-control and non-violence, it goes on forever. What Gandhi perceived was that there was a powerful force operating underneath the hatred: fear.

Conservative and Liberal

Take any group of people, any society no matter how large or small, and people will naturally divide into two camps, conservative and liberal. I’ve wondered for a long time why this is; perhaps because there are so many dualities in ordinary life: night and day, left and right, up and down, past and future. Whatever the case, we can’t seem to get away from it in the human realm. This phenomenon has been subjected to scientific analysis in recent years, and the general conclusion is that conservatives and liberals think differently. They make completely different assumptions about what is ultimately good for their society. Since the foundations of thought are different, everything that follows is shaped by the basic frame of reference, the assumptions, and even the meanings of words.

Rev. Phoebe and I have been reading a book entitled Moral Politics, by George Lakoff*, who is a cognitive scientist. Lakoff studied why conservatives and liberals have such a difficult time talking with each other, let alone coming to any sort of agreement on government policy, or the best course to chart for the future of the country. He discovered that the two groups have two distinct meanings for the same words. He also discovered that everyone uses metaphorical language to describe the world, and that one group uses their own specific set of metaphors, while the other uses theirs. So it should come as no surprise that meaningful communication has effectively ceased—because everyone has different meanings in the first place. It is as if we speak a common language, English, but we still are in need of interpreters. It would be an interesting experiment to see if, let’s say in the deliberations of the Congress, or a presidential debate, an interpreter was present, who had no particular stake in the outcome, to decipher exactly what a speaker was trying to convey, and the assumptions they are making in the process.

Marriage counseling works the same way. The marriage counselor is acting as a go-between and interpreter to get to the bottom of why the two parties feel and experience the same events so differently. In this case, the underlying differences are less likely to be the result of a different set of word meanings, although that might be a factor, but that one person is male and the other female. Men and women simply have different motivations and feelings. In order for any marriage to be a success, they have to communicate effectively, learn to be empathetic, patient, and willing to resolve the inevitable differences in perception and values when they arise.

I’ve spent my whole adult life in the monastic environment, which can be viewed as an idealized environment in which everyone, hopefully, is working on themselves spiritually. But even here, politics exist and have to be reckoned with. My teacher idealized spiritual endeavor at the expense of the political, which was pushed to the side. This created a dichotomy in which the spiritual was good, and valued, while the mundane, the political, was given reduced value. The net result was that the monks were not trained in matters of politics, and it showed whenever there were group decisions to be made. If you have a system in which there is an authoritarian, powerful central figure who customarily makes decisions for everyone, then this system kind of works, at least for a while. But the minute you adopt a more democratic system of government, then you have dysfunction.

As it happens, George Lakoff uncovered two basic family models which he proposes serve as the underlying template for the conservative and liberal political philosophies. The conservative template is the family with a strong, central, authoritarian figure: the father. Father knows best, and everyone else needs to respect that authority. Children should be obedient. Eventually, when they reach adulthood, they should stand on their own two feet as autonomous adults, responsible for their own welfare. They are being prepared for life in a tough, unsympathetic world. The liberal template is that of the family with parents who, together, nurture the children. Although children should respect their parents’ authority and experience, parents’ actions are nevertheless subject to questioning and evaluation by the children. In order for children to grow up into being responsible adults, they need to witness nurturing and compassion in action. They need to understand the whys and wherefores. Both templates have discipline and respect for authority in them, and both have nurturing in them, but the preeminence of the two is reversed.

I think Lakoff’s model has validity. Like any theory, it can’t explain everything about the differences between strikingly different political philosophies, but it goes a long way to help explain why things are as they are now, politically, and serves as a very useful springboard to finding ways to bridge the communication gap. If the hypothetical debate moderator, or interpreter, was conversant with Lakoff’s basic thesis, they might have some success in helping the two sides develop some understanding, and perhaps even sympathy each for the other.

If we look at how societies in the first world have been evolving over the past few generations, it seems pretty clear that they are moving slowly from the conservative template in the direction of the liberal one. You couldn’t possibly broadcast a television program called Father Knows Best and have a wide audience take it seriously. It would probably be ridiculed as hopelessly passé.  But I can imagine that, for people who still think in conservative metaphors, their underlying belief that this is how things really should be has come under attack over the past 50+ years since that show was aired. They feel beset by eroding societal mores, and lament the loss of a time when there was more discipline in the home. Conservative pundits have said as much.  The rise of feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment, the AIDS epidemic and the eventual acceptance of gay marriage, and the constantly shifting social relationships of the computer age all say to the conservative mind: our values are under attack and we need to fight back.

The liberal set of metaphors, meanwhile, includes Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, a widely accepted scientific theory. Applied to the realm of human civilization—the very term suggests a movement from wild or untamed towards domestic and civilized—one can very easily make the assumption that society, on the whole, is moving towards reduced racism, elevated human rights and greater social justice; equal opportunity in education and employment; the labor movement; gender equality; and benevolent governance. A march of progress. These after all have been the great social causes in the American experience, things for which people have fought long and hard, and continue to do so. And it is very easy to assume that this set of values is right or more advanced than a conservative set of values, which may not see things this way at all. So the experience of the past few decades, in which that set of values seems to be eroding, says to the liberal mind: our values are under attack and we need to fight to retain them.

Is there one political philosophy which is right and one which is wrong? Both sides assume their side is right, or more just, or more ideal. As in Gandhi’s India, there is an other, an opponent to be fought. The American political system, the two-party system, in fact sets the stage for an adversarial method of governance, in which the tide of battle inevitably swings back and forth as one side advances and the other retreats. Sometimes the bitterness of it swells up and you have a situation such as our current one, featuring anger, misunderstanding, condemnation at every opportunity, and precious little cooperation. And as Gandhi said, we think the problem is anger, but really it is fear. We fear, then despise the Other.

Desire and Fear

Fear has a partner in crime: desire. Lots of things in life are desirable, and when they slip away or become unobtainable, we become afraid. It is pretty much a natural progression in the way the human mind works. I believe this hard wiring of the brain comes from our natural instinct for survival; we want to live, we want security, we want enough food, we want our family members and friends around us—and then when those things are threatened, we become afraid. We also become angry, but the anger is a beat behind the fear, as Gandhi pointed out.

In the political world, people desire all kinds of things, but they are all based on values—wanting America to be strong and lead the world; wanting to go back to a former time when life was simpler, there was more respect and discipline and morality; wanting to simply save the planet from becoming inhospitable as a result of a rapidly rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; wanting to extend universal health care coverage to everyone, regardless of social standing or income; wanting to rev up the economy so that times are good once again, and everyone has money, preferably lots of it. The list goes on. But now, in 2016, it looks like no one is going to actually succeed in getting any of it. The frustration and bitterness of a dysfunctional system of government is boiling over. We simply cannot get what we want anymore, and that impotence has given rise to an empty slogan: Make America Great Again.

I also think that the subliminal level of fear in America increased by an exponential factor after 9/11. I’m writing this on the 15th anniversary of that infamous event, so there are many retrospectives being put forward in popular news media. They all serve to remind us that we no longer can rest easy in the knowledge and comfort that we live in a safe world—never mind that statistics supposedly paint a somewhat more nuanced picture, and that the world actually is safer than it used to be. The fear of Islamic fundamentalism and its associated terrorism has created a new Public Enemy #1, the new Other. An entity which you are entitled to hate, and vent whatever anger and rage you have about it. All of this proceeds from a primal fear that it could happen again, that we’re not really safe—just look at mass shootings perpetrated by Islamic extremists—and that the only really effective response is to fight back.

On the other hand, we could try not being afraid. Unfortunately, there is no government program for reducing fear. There is no anti-fear propaganda, propaganda by definition being a tool in the hands of those who master the art of using fear to manipulate human beings. We have to turn elsewhere for a solution to the problem of fear—ideally, you’d think, to religion. Or at least some sort of methodology—psychology, self-improvement, martial arts, whatever. And before that we must acknowledge and become aware that we are, in fact, afraid.

Having devoted my life to Buddhism and meditation practice, I don’t know any other way to accomplish this. There might be other ways, but I’m not familiar with them. Fear is something that tends to lie hidden in the mind, and acts as a silent motivator. Just to see it requires learning to sit still. If you can sit still enough to allow fear to actually come to the surface of the mind, then you can begin the painstaking process of letting its energy dissipate, but it isn’t an easy thing to do. Fear is a bully, and its energy is a chasing, demanding energy, forcing us to do things we are dimly aware we shouldn’t be doing. Sitting still with anger energy can be like riding a bull, actually. The good thing is that even a bull eventually gets tired. And even a bull can be tamed.

The experience of the past 15 years should have long since shown us that no external agency can actually make our lives safe and make fear go away. No politician has any business promising that they can achieve this, no matter how much money is spent in the process. I recently read a magazine article in The Atlantic, which asked the question: Since 9/11 we have spent a trillion dollars to defend against terrorism, but are we any safer as a result? The result of the writer’s research was that, in some ways, yes, we’re safer; but on the whole, there’s only so much anyone, or any agency, can do about it. In the end, we are all vulnerable.* To this conclusion I would add: so there’s nothing for it but to learn not to be afraid.

In my monastic life I spent years learning this. I had to watch my fear come to the surface of my mind, look it right in the eye and stare it down. It is an essentially lonely, individual process of spiritual growth and unfolding. It helps to have someone you can look to as an example of one who has let go of fear, and learned to live without it. There aren’t many such people, but they do exist. If there were (or are) group activities which can help people cultivate fearlessness, I’d be all for them. Ultimately, we are afraid of harm to our physical selves, and death. This means that, at the root of it, we have to learn to go into situations not caring if we come out alive.

There is harm to our physical selves, and then there is harm to our emotional, “me” selves. They aren’t fundamentally separate, and usually the me self is the one which makes the most noise. It is enormously liberating to reach a point within yourself where you don’t care whether the me self lives or dies. However much noise it makes in the mind about its own supposed self-preservation, if you can say   to it that you don’t care whether it lives or dies, and that you’re simply plumb tired of it, you can, in that moment, transcend the self. It isn’t a matter of defeating or conquering it so much as a matter of letting its noise, self-pity, and attempts at self-preservation die out from a lack of energy being put into it.

An Aside on the Nature of Politics

Most Buddhists seem to stay away from politics. It might be different in Asia, where Buddhism is the predominant religion in several Southeast Asian nations, but meanwhile in America it seems that virtually all Buddhists are liberals politically. This is not surprising given that Buddhism puts primary emphasis on compassion for all life, and as George Lakoff asserts, the compassionate, nurturing family model is the basis of liberal thinking. But there is a conundrum embedded in this. Buddhist morality suggests refraining from criticizing others or speaking ill of others—which is virtually impossible to do in the realm of politics. So, how can you be engaged politically and still live as morally pure a life as possible? On the face of it, it doesn’t look possible, and hence the reluctance of Buddhists to even try.

It is also virtually impossible to write about politics for the same reason. I started out this article calling Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, bombastic, narcissistic, etc. It’s a true statement, given the meanings normally assigned to those words. But where does calling a spade a spade end, and speaking ill of others begin? There is no clear boundary as such, only a gray area. Politics is very subjective; it doesn’t lend itself to hard and fast rules like physics, for instance, or accounting. In other words, it is a morass where morality is concerned. This gives a natural advantage to those who are less restrained in their offensive, intentionally damaging remarks. The only way a more disciplined, morally circumspect politician can gain the approval of the general public versus a loudmouth is if the general public has a relatively high moral awareness and sensitivity in the first place. That very thing has been deteriorating in America for some time, making it possible for the aforementioned candidate to win the primary slugfest and emerge as his party’s candidate.

I could easily write an article taking apart conservative political concepts as absurd, and promoting liberal ones, but that would completely miss the point. The point is that it is very difficult not to be part of the problem of pervasive negativity if you are engaged in angry speech—or even more analytical, objective speech (or writing) which takes apart one of the two main political paradigms and exposes it as absurd, backward, unenlightened, or any set of characteristics which will appear to be negative. It will just be one more political opinion piece. My main purpose is to talk about fear as an underlying force which skews our ability to see clearly, and everyone suffers from this to some degree, left and right. On this level, the bedrock level of being human, we are all basically the same: fear is a wrecking ball.

Given the nature of the Trump campaign, there has been a wide ranging discussion in news media of its similarities to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. It has been a criticism leveled at the German people that, during the decades of the 30s, they were far too passive about the rise of Adolph Hitler, and should have spoken out against him. If that is true, it suggests that under certain circumstances, the morally right thing to do is speak out as loudly as possible against a potentially great evil. Some people in America are trying to do this today. Part of the problem is that we have the benefit of hindsight where Nazi Germany is concerned, and it may have not been apparent, or seemed likely, during much of the 30s that Adolph Hitler was about to start of war of aggression and attempt to exterminate an entire race of people in the German homeland. On the other hand, perhaps, if the German people had not been afraid of the Nazis in the first place, it wouldn’t have happened. Whatever the case, there are a lot of people in America right now who are very worried that there are enough similarities that we, as a nation, are in deep trouble.

My teacher said repeatedly that there is no absolutely karma-free way to live. You have to have the courage of your convictions and act accordingly, and be mature enough to accept the karmic consequences of those actions, whatever they may be. She would say that Buddhism is not a religion for children, using that word metaphorically. It’s no easy matter to navigate the world, as it is today, with a high level of moral awareness and sensitivity. I often think that my only ambition for the rest of my life is to stay sane in a world gone mad. It’s just possible that none of us can really aspire to much more than this, given that the forces at play are so great. Even the Buddha himself was unable to stop a war between his homeland of Kapilavastu and a neighboring kingdom, in which most of his kinsmen were wiped out—and he did try. This underscores another point which the Buddha often made, which is that the world is a rough place, and life is fleeting. However high our ideals may be, it is likely that the ill-natured aspect of human existence will subject them to a beating. That does not mean we should not have high ideals, only that we should hold them lightly, and lovingly, and not expect anyone else to live by them. Buddhism is a religion for spiritual adults, my teacher used to say.

The Future

The future of our world may be bleak. We might elect a crazed narcissist president, and then again we might not, but either way, there are forces which have been unleashed which will play out their energy and have their due effect. The Buddhist law of karma dictates that, whenever there is willful action, there are inescapable consequences. The cumulative effect of, for instance, a century of fossil fuel burning, is beginning to play out in the form of climate change, violent weather episodes, drought, and a rising sea level. The best we could hope for at this point is to mitigate the severity of those consequences. The world also appears to be spoiling for a fight, and it may or may not be avoidable; but the thing we can do which is of the most benefit to humankind is to not be afraid. If you are not afraid, it means that you do not really care whether you live or die. It means that you are willing to work for the good of the world and of all living creatures within it, knowing full well that it might make no difference on the larger scale. But on the smaller scale of our own lives and the people we come into contact with, we can make a difference.

Some years ago I had a vivid spiritual experience of seeing that fear and desire exist as a mutually reinforcing pair of forces—forces of the mind. They do a little dance together, a little chase, actually. It is like the merry chase of the pig, the cock and the snake depicted in the very center of the Tibetan Wheel of Life genre of painting. And having seen that this is how things work, I can come back to the place of fearlessness, knowing that external security is an illusion, and that the only true security lies within ones own Buddha Nature. There is no real peace to be found outside of the mind, and we should let go of the idea that any politician, political philosophy or political system can provide it. We cannot avoid politics, but neither should we place any hope in them. Without hope and expectation, we will not be disappointed; the only true peace is found within yourself, at the center of your being.

***

Tired

By Sally Brown

I’m tired.  Not all the time, but enough so that I can not depend on not being tired.  There are days when it seems relentless, and other hours where I think it is all in my head.

The strange thing is, I have never been happier.  Happier because of all that I am learning about myself and Buddhist practice.

The other day I woke up with the mantra ‘I’m tired’ as the first thought of the morning.  I opened my eyes and decided to lay there for a few moments.  I usually get right up and get going – tea, reading, meditation, and on to the day.  But this morning I lay there and looked out the window.  Really taking a good deep look.  It was beautiful.  About four different colors with many shades of each blending together in a stormy sky, broken by the morning sun.  It was so beautiful.  If I hadn’t been tired, I would have missed it.

I remember when I first went to Shasta Abbey, before coming to Pine Mountain, we would have meditation periods, work periods, eating times, resting time, tea with talks, and more meditation.  There was a schedule that had to be kept.  At first I wanted to accomplish the task at hand, finishing perfectly to the end. Show everyone how good I was because I could accomplish. (It has taken me years to understand that this is a habit, not a necessity of life.)  A bell would ring, or someone would look at a clock and whatever we were working on had to be stopped, finished or not, tools put away, and on to the next item on the schedule.  It sent shock waves through my system to Not Finish The Task.  Finally I learned the wisdom behind the training and I use it now with tiredness.  When I start to sink, when my body says enough, when the interior bell rings – I stop.  It isn’t always comfortable or convenient; sometimes I fight it, but I ask myself, is what I’m doing that important?  How quickly can I get out of where I am and get to a resting place?  Isn’t tending to my life force more important than finishing the task?  Well, yes.  Aren’t we here to listen to our Buddha Nature?

I was swamped with visitors this year.  All were welcomed and wanted, and nobody overlapped.  Where I live we have what feels like three months of summer and everyone wants to come then.  So I was fortunate to have the proper spacing, but it did take a toll.  One set of visitors were family members with whom I have things to work out.  Each year I want more from them – more time, more conversation, more signs of affection – you name it.  This year, because I was going slow, I thought I would try to do things differently.  What if I was very pleased and happy with whatever was offered?  Enjoy the moments I had?  Forget about what I wanted, deserved, craved?  It occurred to me then, that this is one of the basic principles of Buddhist teaching – giving up wants and desires to find true happiness.  Because, believe me, there were few enough pleasurable moments and I was out to enjoy each and every nanosecond of them all!  Wow, did that feel good!  Pure loving happiness.  It was difficult, for sure, to ask for nothing, to find ways to give joy (freshly made pesto!), and not fall back on the old wants and desires routine. I did it because I was too tired to beg for more.  I took a step forward with the edgy relationships – going slower helped that come about.

I am not suggesting that anyone ‘get tired’ as a way to enlightenment.  I am working to find out what is causing this state and get out of it.  It is difficult on my mind.  Now I try not to be involved in the community.  I don’t volunteer to do fun things.  Say no nicely.  Tell friends I’ve had enough and need to go home.  But I can do what I can do and that has turned out to be something I’ve wanted to do for years – sorting out and finding new homes for stuff that has accumulated in the house for the last 40 years.  This is a huge task – right?  Looks immense.  So big I haven’t been able to touch it in all those 40 years.  So, in keeping with the theme of going slow, I take an item, or a category (e.g. embroidery supplies) and find someone who wants or needs it.  One item at a time.  I am very slowly making space.  I am cleaning out not only material objects that clutter my life, but psychic clutter as well.  Once all those things that are not used or are held for memory value only are gone, what will come in?  What will be left?  Who can I be?  I’m excited by the wonder.  It feels like becoming a kid again.  Emptying out and letting my Buddha Nature fill the space.  I would never have started on a journey of this depth if it hadn’t been for the depth of the tiredness.

I am tired, and I am grateful for it.

***

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When the Student is Ready by Rev. Master Phoebe

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