Monday, May 17, 2010

Does Samsara Really Need Janitors?

"Religion does not mean just precepts, a temple, monastery, or other external signs, for these as well as hearing and thinking are subsidiary factors in taming the mind. When the mind becomes the practices, one is a practitioner of religion, and when the mind does not become the practices one is not." -- XIVth Dalai Lama

Every day in this world, millions of sentient beings die. Every day in this world, millions of sentient beings harm each other. Every day you are going to get the news. There are going to be fires, floods, earthquakes, plane crashes, military and political outrages... the list goes on and on. Every day in this world, something is going "wrong."

Welcome to samsara.

If you are rushing from one disaster to another, saving whales, trees, dogs, birds, starving orphans, victims of this, and victims of that, sooner or later you will become exhausted. Sooner or later, you will come to realize that, despite all of your effort, the whales, trees, dogs, birds, orphans, and victims are no fewer in number than when you began your crusades. 

Later, rather than sooner, you might even come to realize that all your rushing around is just another excuse for not realizing emptiness: for not realizing impermanence.

Another excuse for not practicing dharma according to dharma.

Welcome to samsara, and the topic for today's sermon, which is "Does Samsara Really Need Janitors?" I want to test the thesis that one can run around placing labels on phenomena, tidying up samsara with a mop and bucket, or one can realize the nature of one's own mind.

Among people who have some inner need to define themselves as Buddhists, there are both overt and covert reasons for wishing to engage in altruistic actions. For example: some people want to engage in good works as a means of accumulating merit.

Some people want to engage in good works as a means of holding tight to their own version of "sanity." Doing good works means listening to the "white angel," as distinct from doing bad works, which means listening to the "red devil."

Proceeding from that idea, some people want to engage in good works as a means of working toward an arbitrarily idealized perfection, or some alternative to how they perceive the present moment. Thus, doing good works becomes an "improvement" over the present circumstance.

Some people wish to do good works because they perceive themselves as "compassionate," and believe in "compassionate action." They therefore map their compassion by what they perceive as circumstances requiring compassionate action.

For centuries, Buddhism has been practiced as a contemplative religion characterized by renunciation of that which is unreal. When you are worn out chasing mirages, you are worn out chasing mirages. Lately, as Westerners and post-colonial Asians profoundly influenced by Western social institutions engage themselves in redefining that which requires no redefinition, we have come to see something defined as "humanistic Buddhism," or "worldly Buddhism," or "engaged Buddhism," or Buddhism-as-institution's answer to the seeming imperative to do good works. I am not arguing the worth of engaged Buddhism -- well, not yet -- I am merely pointing out the case.

Rescuing puppy dogs, caring for oil-soaked birds, and otherwise tidying up samsara cannot be evaluated by the terms that create samsara in the first place. Such activity cannot be delimited in dualistic constructs of value: "good" or "bad."

You can take the most viciously ignorant imbecile on the face of the planet, dress him up in monk's robes, pack him off to save the world, and tell him he is "doing good." He is doing the "Lord's work."

He will believe he is doing good. He will believe he is doing the Lord's work.

You will believe he is doing good. You will believe he is doing the Lord's work.

This is wonderful, with the tiny caveat that you and your hypothetical monk are no longer Buddhists. To the contrary, you are now eternalists disguised as Buddhists. That you agree with each other concerning the righteousness of your cause is meaningless: this is spiritual materialism at its rankest.
You can take the most viciously ignorant imbecile on the face of the planet, dress him up in soldier's uniform, pack him off to save the world, and tell him he is "doing good." He is doing the "Lord's work." 
He will believe he is doing good. He will believe he is doing the Lord's work. 
You will believe he is doing good. You will believe he is doing the Lord's work.
Nobody needs to map compassion. Nobody needs to guide the hand of original wisdom.  When Buddha achieved or relaxed into whatever it is we believe he achieved or relaxed into while sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree, a large red cross did not suddenly begin glowing on his chest. He did not jump up and rush out to save the poor. He did not latch on to a cause and use it as the locus of a fundraising mechanism. He did not begin building institutions.

Twist it and wring it and pound it any way you like. Buddha did not engage in engaged Buddhism.

When we talk about engaged Buddhism, we are really talking about social phenomena as distinct from dharma. The common belief is that Thich Nhat Han (Nguyen Xuan Bao, b. 11 October 1926) originated the concept, but this is not accurate. The concept existed within the framework of Vietnamese Buddhist thought long before Thich Nhat Han. You can, for example, see it in the Buu Song Ky Huong movement, and numerous other examples are found all the way back to the 10th century. All of this, in turn, is a reflection of Chinese concepts of "humanistic Buddhism" that arose with imperial challenges designed to test Buddhism's value to the empire. In the 1960s, during the Viet Nam era, and the Red Guard era, these concepts re-emerged as indigenous Buddhism's means of coping with widespread social upheaval, and that is how we came to know them.

There is another example to consider, and this would be Master Cheng Yen's Tzu Chi Foundation, which originates in Taiwan, also in the 1960s. I have met Cheng Yen (Wang Jinyun, b. 11 May 1937), and I firmly believe she is a Bodhisattva, operating beyond the construct of religion.  In my heart, I feel that Cheng Yen's efforts are somewhat removed from the concept of engaged Buddhism -- although she might contest the point -- as I feel Tzu Chi Foundation is the openly radiating reflection of a Bodhisattva's mind, as distinct from a social movement. I have the deepest and most profound respect for Cheng Yen -- who I note, parenthetically, ordained herself, and for the whole of her life has maintained a personal practice solely devoted to the Lotus Sutra.
As an aside: In America, we also had our own "worldly Buddhist" nascency in the person of a man who variously called himself Neville Warwick, or Dr. Ajari, and who in the late 1950s founded something in San Francisco he called St. John's Order. This was explained as a "Russian lamaist" tradition. That is Dr. Ajari to the right of Lama Govinda, in the photograph below.

There is always the temptation to think of Dr. Ajari as a well-meaning and otherwise harmless crank, until you examine his history. He and his organization raised well over five million dollars which they funneled into the hands of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and organizations all throughout the 1960s up until Dr. Ajari's death in 1993. This was done through the medium of a Japanese bedding company on Geary Street in San Francisco, and by various other means. The group lived quite humbly together, and kept nothing for themselves. Often, they were reduced to eating nothing but rice. -- they did not even keep enough to purchase vegetables. Among other accomplishments, they substantially financed portions of the Dalai Lama's first visit to America, and the founding of numerous Kagyu centers in California. In the 1970s, I was personally present when the late Kalu Rinpoche formally recognized Dr. Ajari as a tulku, during the course and scope of a public ceremony in Marin County, California. Of course, with Kalu Rinpoche's sense of humor, on that occasion he suggested that Dr. Ajari be called "Jendak Rinpoche." On another occasion, I was present when Dr. Ajari handed over USD $100,000 in cash to a Tibetan lama. I remember someone had to drive him home. He had not kept enough money to take a bus. He died penniless. He had given away every cent he ever made.
It is one thing to consider exemplary beings who, having accomplished their own purposes, take up the welfare of others. It is another thing to consider if it is useful, or necessary, for those of us who shine with lesser light to forgo the traditional progression of practice for broom, mop, and bucket, and start polishing phenomena. There is an important distinction to grasp: social activism proceeding from realization, and social activism as a replacement for or in lieu of realization.
All compounded things are impermanent.
All emotions are pain.
All things have no inherent existence.
Nirvana is beyond concepts.
Try as you might, you cannot get away from the four seals, so succinctly stated by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, as quoted above. Before you go off to save the world, you need to sit down and carefully examine the extent to which your thoughts, motivations, beliefs, and actions are in harmony or disharmony with those four seals. If all, or any part, of what you are thinking, believing, or doing is in opposition, you are no longer a Buddhist.

I can hear the howling already. "Well, Karmapa said we're supposed to take care of the environment! What about that, huh?" Taking care of the environment is a wonderful thing for Buddhists to do: a natural extension of our practice. However, Karmapa did not say to replace said practice with taking care of the environment, nor did he say that "the environment" as a naked proposition was permanent, eternal, or even inherently extant. Karmapa did not say to replace coming to know mind by coming to know mind with rote social activity.

If, as a self-described Buddhist, you feel that your practice is saving whales -- if you lavish a mother's love and attention on whales, with every waking hour devoted to their tender care -- and you are otherwise a complete idiot, having not the slightest grasp on Buddhist fundamentals, then I do not know to what extent your ideal of benefit is actually being served. To what extent have you allowed relative benefit to stand in the way of ultimate benefit?

Because Buddha did not get caught up in saving whales. That is not how he set about to benefit beings. Buddha reckoned that there was universal suffering -- suffering not delimited to whales -- and he wanted to find the cause of that suffering. Once he found the cause of that suffering he wanted to find its cessation. Once he found how to make it stop, he pointed out the way to others.

Here is the dialectic. You can express it with the example often applied to admirals or gifted intelligence officers: they can take as much or as little of a war that they wish. The meaning is that you have the freedom to pick and choose your battles.

Although you have this freedom, it does not necessarily mean you must pick and choose battles.

You are saving whales, correct? What about the roundup of those poor wild horses? Who will save those poor wild horses? Who will save the alligators who are bound to suffer because of the oil spill? Never mind the birds. Never mind the loveable, furry creatures. Who will save the millions of poisonous snakes who are bound to suffer because of the oil spill? Who will rescue them? Who will care for them? Who will adopt them? Who will save the billions of insects who are bound to suffer because of the oil spill? What about the thousands of insects you will kill with your car while driving to save the billions of insects? Are you God? How, and why, are you qualifying and quantifying your decisions? Did you know that in the wide, wide world of animal rescue there are even rescue organizations that specialize in rescuing rescued animals from other rescue organizations?

Compassion -- genuine compassion -- is the hallmark of realization. It rises and expresses itself naturally, appropriately, and perfectly. No tinkering is required: no fiddling with the knobs or adjusting the dials. Compassion does not hunt and seek. Compassion radiates. Generosity and altruism -- legitimate generosity and altruism -- cannot be abused, swindled, goal-directed, mapped out, or exhausted. Generosity and altruism do not operate selectively.

Everything proceeds naturally from realization.

Have I said anywhere that Buddhists should abandon social activism? No I have not. In the foregoing, it is not my suggestion that you should abandon social conscience altogether and start tossing garbage out the window of your speeding life. It is merely my suggestion that you earnestly consider hitching the horse to the front of the cart. It is better for the horse, and gets the job done.
Among people who have some inner need to define themselves as Buddhists, there are both overt and covert reasons for wishing to engage in altruistic actions. For example: some people want to engage in good works as a means of accumulating merit.
It is my suggestion that you consider merit as fictitious, and remember that all accumulations -- be they of merit or otherwise -- will inevitably end in dispersal. Learn what is exhaustible and what is inexhaustible.
Some people want to engage in good works as a means of holding tight to their own version of "sanity." Doing good works means listening to the "white angel," as distinct from doing bad works, which means listening to the "red devil."
It is my suggestion that you collapse the boundaries between white angels and red devils, and not employ dualism -- the root of samsara -- as a root means of measurement, evaluation, decision-making, or guideline.
Proceeding from that idea, some people want to engage in good works as a means of working toward an arbitrarily idealized perfection, or some alternative to how they perceive the present moment. Thus, doing good works becomes an "improvement" over the present circumstance.
It is my suggestion that you replace fault-finding with a simple appreciation of naturally arising perfection. Stop regarding samsara -- or your present status as a human being -- as a "problem" that needs to be "solved."
Some people wish to do good works because they perceive themselves as "compassionate," and believe in "compassionate action." They therefore map their compassion by what they perceive as circumstances requiring compassionate action.
It is my suggestion that you replace the finite delusion with the infinite alternative, and become a source of refuge.

It beats being a sob sister or an adrenaline junkie.

It means being a Buddhist.




Stumble Upon Toolbar

15 reader comments:

Yeshe Dorje said...

Ah, Tenpa. You make my head explode. I know that doesn't begin to say much of anything. Your writing is very much to the point. For that I am very grateful! Thank you!

Virginia said...

You are mainstream Buddhist media. No question you are at the top for identifying and explaining issues everybody has but nobody can directly pinpoint. This has changed me for the better. Thank you so much.

Timberland said...

I pray every day for your long life.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate you wrote this because it helped me a lot to put things in perspective.

PemaT said...

Tanks for your wisdom and clarity.
We often discussed about this and it's great to read it from you.

[Somehow, with many of your texts about dharma I feel a kind of connection: you're posting about many subjects that are shaking in my mindstream.]

Greetings from Spain.

Stephen said...

I met an elderly gentleman last night during dinner, and he spoke about Mind Training that Atisha received from Serlingpa (among other things). The same elderly gentleman also believed in a creator god of the monotheists, from what I could gather. Mind Training and eternalism together ! He and I were ex-Catholics. When Garchen Rinpoche spoke about the way of religion to happiness and the way of the world to happiness, I turned to the elderly gentleman and said that I was reminded of St Augutsine's "City of God", in which humanity is divided into two , the City of God and the City of Man, both of which are striving for happiness. Of course, I was NOT at all implying that Buddhism and Catholicism were the same. I asked him about his conversion to Catholicism, and he said that he was upset with God for allowing an accident to happen long ago. I then said that in Buddhism, there was no creator god. He suddenly became defensive. Since his remarks and behaviour suggested that he probably believed in a creator god covertly, I asked a question : "why must there be a beginning or a creation, that would necessitate a creator god?" In response, he said that asking "why", "when" and such things were signs of a degenerate age. Maybe I should ask him how he could reconcile Mind Training with eternalism. Or would that "how" question be yet another sign of the degenerate age ?

Judith Avalon said...

Thanks for the janitorial service. Yes I do need this kind of clean up regularly, thank you so very very much dear Tenpa.

Homohabilis said...

I've been enjoying your Digital Altar for some time now; this is the first time I've been moved to comment. I particularly enjoyed this essay, as I'm increasingly dismayed at what is being made of "Buddhism" in the West, especially America, these days. Everyone, it seems, wants to harness the Dharma to whatever their own little wagon may be.

I knew Dr. Ajari briefly in San Francisco in the 70s; I confess that "well-meaning and otherwise harmless crank" is approximately how I saw him, but also rather charming, perhaps because I'm pretty idiosyncratic myself. I did an Internet search for him a while back, but didn't find much; it's nice to learn more about him, and I certainly wish him well, wherever he is. Here's another photo:
http://vkleary.blogspot.com/2008/03/three-loveable-crazies.html

Stephen said...

CORRECTION : I made a typo error : "I asked him about his conversion to Catholicism, and he said that he was upset with God for allowing an accident to happen long ago" should be "I asked him about his conversion to BUDDHISM, and he said that he was upset with God for allowing an accident to happen long ago".

Stephen said...

Yes, this is a much-needed BRAVE article by Tenpa that puts charity/compassion in the context of Buddhism properly.

Bright Eyes Sanctuary said...

I'd love to read a dissection by you of Albert Schweitzer's 'will-to-be' concept. Is it not the seed of a Buddhist concept spontaneously manifesting in the West?

TENPA said...

Compassionate action, to whatever degree, is praiseworthy. However, the ultimate activity should be recognized as attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Of course, if your compassionate action happens to involve rabbits, that is right off the charts ;-)

Damien said...

Thanks, a well-needed shot of common sense. We were having a similar discussion to this in our sangha recently, but nothing quite so eloquent. :-)

Paul G. said...

Very powerfully reasoned and persuasive argument to become enlightened for the benefit of all sentient beings, and not get caught up in phenomena in the process.
Thank you!

Ryuho said...

When Bodhidharma first met the Chinese King, the King (who had funded monasteries and given lavishly to Buddhist orders) asked him what kind of merit he had achieved through all his good works. "Nothing" replied the sage, who then spent the next 8 years in a cave staring at the wall until offered an arm.

Tenpa's very powerful and concise essay on the perils of engaging in compassionate action solely as a means of trying to achieve enlightenment misses the point: I know of no one who practices Engaged Buddhism who does not also engage in meditation, study of scriptures, and other mind training practices. He is, in effect, creating a straw man who he can knock down. It's a cheap argument and one that's unworthy of the rest of the essay.

For the record, as an Engaged Buddhist practitioner of a number of years, in addition to that practice, I also keep the discipline of vows, engage in a variety of meditative practices, study scripture, and meet regularly with enlightened teachers who help me to apply all these things for the benefit of sentient beings. Having achieved Enlightment, the Buddha did not solely sit on his ass for the next 40 but taught a wide variety of sentient beings according to their nature. What we call Engaged Buddhism is simply another tool to help a certain mindset "clear away the dust from their eyes." Tenpa's essay points out some of the pitfalls in using the technique alone to try and achieve realization, but I know of no one who does.