A friend and I have been discussing some, what I think are salient points over email, and I thought it would be beneficial to share some of our discourse here. The flowing is a transcript of some of what was discussed. Please feel free to comment further.
Before I get into the two ideas you wish to dissect, I want to touch on a few miscellaneous points. The first is the fact that I am so excited that you have learned this idea early on: Buddhism, when it all comes down to it, is a practice. I like that idea very much.
Me too. My problem is that it took me a very long time to figure this out. I felt that if I wasn’t an unconditional meditating, vegetarian monk than I was nowhere close to getting to where I wanted to be. I can see now that Zen is a practice. We take it one day, and one step at a time and work on practicing the skill of mindfulness. My mother always says to choose one or two things that I can do mindfully each day and practice doing them. This sounds so simple, but I can’t even do that. Her example is to put my shoes in the same place everyday when I am done with them and be aware that I am doing this. Think of it as learning how to catch before you become a baseball player. You must learn the basics first.
For me, not drinking alcohol this year has allowed me to at least be aware of how much of my life was being spent in unreality. I needed to get away from the crutch of allowing myself the escape, whenever I was “bored” with life. Now, I often find myself thinking, wow! So this is it huh? It is Wednesday night and this is all I have? No parties, no rock star, just this? I have learned to take stock of what I have, and I am mindful that I love the life I have built and I move on. Where in the past I would suck down a bottle of wine and watch the night fade.
I guess what I am trying say is that we must not only practice, but we must be mentally ready to practice. To continue with the sports analogy, you must be ready to practice. Then you take it one skill at a time. I still cannot sit. So I practice trying to be mindful as I eat, or wash the dishes. I do this maybe once a week, but at least I have become aware of when I am stuffing my face watching the TV thinking about our baby insurance. Sometimes I have my breakfast on the porch and focus on each bite. This is a simple “drill’ but very important throughout my day. The more you practice being mindful, the more you notice how unmindfully we live. We are rarely a part of our own lives. It takes work to be present.
I have also been trying to focus on the other precepts, like not talking badly of others, although I still gossip at work all the time. I feel I am at the stage where I am realizing how much work I have ahead of me, but this is a crucial stage. I think. I am taking inventory on where I am now, so I know what I need to practice. Any coach will tell you that you must take stock of your players before you start training.
Another thing I have learned this year is that there is no end. No enlightenment. No Happyland where suddenly everything is perfect. There is simply only the practice. I will be 80 years old and still working on walking mindfully. That is it. You knew this was coming:
Now here are the two points that were raised:
" Buddhism practices the idea that we are perfect the way we are--and we could use some improvement; also, it shows us how impermanent, how ephemeral, how contingent we all are, how there is no birth, no death. so my question is how can we negotiate those two ideas...that we are perfect and that we earthly dust with no real claim to time or space?"
I hate to answer questions with questions, but I think it is important here. Why do you feel that anything that is perfect must be permanent? I think it would be wise to look into nature here for examples. Almost everything in nature is perfect: clouds, flowers, a colony of ants, redwood trees etc… I think you are assuming that after their “time’ on earth they die and disappear, but try to think that in reality they simply manifest themselves into other beings. The redwood tree that “dies” simply becomes moss, or dirt, or ants. The perfect cotton shaped cloud becomes a flower, rain, you! Nothing is ever born or dies, it is simply constantly becoming. So while you may think that we have no claim to time and space, it might be beneficial to think that we have claim to all time and space. Everything is perfect and eternal. There is a scientific term that I think may shed some light here, energy cannot be created or destroyed.
I like to think of the water cycle to clarify the idea of impermanence. Can you tell me the difference between a raindrop, water in the ocean, water in a river, in a cloud, in your stomach after you drink, in a steam after the rain. This water is never born and it never dies, it is simply always changing. All beings are like this. You have been all beings, you are all beings and you will become all beings. Everything is everything. Always!
I guess my short answer is: don’t try to negotiate anything. We are perfect. Enjoy it. Be aware of your perfection. Be aware of the perfection of all beings. Let go of any claims to time and space. They do not exist.
Buddhism practices the idea of renouncing judgment in the hopes of engendering compassion...we dont judge, rather we appreciate the contextual forces that breed certain behavior. but doesn't compassion often let people off the hook...society is full of people who are littering in our national parks, bombing foreign lands, who are full of greed and avarice. so, on some level, doesnt compassion let these actions off the hook...doesnt the constant framing of someone's behavior in a ompassionate context give rise to a certain type of liberalism where no one is culpable?
It’s funny that you bring this up, because this idea was a topic we discussed at length in my class. I framed it in simpler terms of mercy versus revenge and the nature of crime. But the idea was the same: if we do not judge and punish than people will continue to commit crimes. Therefore mercy or compassion is like a get out of jail card.
I think first we may need to look at some of the terminology you have used. You said, “Buddhism practices the idea of renouncing judgment in the hopes of engendering Compassion… we dont judge, rather we appreciate the contextual forces that breed certain behavior.
I don’t want to get into semantics here, but I think it is important to look at words like engendering and appreciate, and ask if they are the words we want to be using here. For me I think Buddhism is not saying that we excuse ‘bad’ behavior, but we understand it. I think that the word understand is crucial here. Because we are not renouncing judgment simply to be compassionate, but we are understanding that who ever is bombing foreign lands or littering is suffering, just like we are suffering, and as soon as we can understand their suffering, we will feel compassion for them. We will see their pain as our own and feel the need to help them. As we alleviate the suffering through our understanding the person will no longer commit the act that was causing them to suffer. Not because they are afraid of repercussions, but because they understand that the act was actually hurting not only the world but themselves as well.
You said that people are filled with greed and avarice. I agree but we cannot rid the world of these painful emotions until we understand their causes. What causes one to be greedy? How can we help a being not feel pain from their own greed? If we can do this we can help them from perpetuating their pain onto others. We are not here to judge or dish out punishment or compassion. We are here to try and understand the causes of that greed. Our compassion is designed for justice but to help alleviate the causes of suffering, in order to help another being understand why they are suffering. By helping others overcome their suffering we help better understand our own. This has been very difficult for me. Because while I can see that most criminals, say, in inner cities are victims of their environments and deserve our help and compassion, I am having a much harder time understating why George Bush deserves my compassion. But he too is another part of me. His greed and ignorance is part of all greed and ignorance, and he needs compassion to help understand the causes of his suffering. Once he does that maybe he will stop bombing foreign lands. Right now he is lost in the disillusion of ignorance and so he spreads his suffering to others.
Doesn’t the constant framing of someone's behavior in a compassionate context give rise to a certain type of liberalism where no one is culpable?
I think in a way this is true, but I also think that this is okay. The idea of culpability arises when we seek to divide the world into concepts of good and bad, or right and wrong, but as we start to see if we start to look carefully at the world, we see that the world is not split in two. There is no good or bad. These are values we apply to action. There should be no blame only understanding and compassion. We are not here to blame and judge, but to fully understand why we suffer and overcome it. If that leads to a certain type of liberalism where no one is culpable, maybe that is okay.
I hope this helped. I know it helped me to sit here and mindfully try and type out my thoughts for the last hour. So thank you.