Category Archives: Buddhism

On Fear

I managed to hurt not one, but two, of my friends’ feelings this week, in separate situations, with things I said, and things I did. I’m feeling afraid, now, of what my words and actions have done, of what the ramifications might be down the line. Unlike many times in my life, these words and actions were not harsh or even ill-thought-out, but they were, nevertheless, potentially damaging. Good intentions only get me so far. I want to write this because I have been reflecting on fear. This is not a new topic for me (or any of us, of course), but it seems important for me to reflect on it again now.

In my early days with Zen, it often struck me as strange that, in Buddhist doctrine, when the three poisons are described, fear was not among them. For many years I sat Zen simply to cope with my fear. That fear was not a foundational poison was hard for me to understand.

The three poisons: greed, anger, and ignorance. I don’t remember where I first read it, but there is a teaching somewhere that shows how each of these is mirrored by compassion, wisdom, and liberation. The teaching suggested, or what I took from it, was that compassion is truly just the blossoming and making whole of greed – that those desires in us that clutch after the world, that want to hold it steady, that want to make it ours and unchanging, can, when they soften, expand out gently becoming an open palm holding the world. The hand that grasps and clutches to own and control, when relaxed and opened, becomes a safe and strong palm capable of holding gently, embracing. So too with ignorance – to be ignorant is to not know something… but what more is liberation than waking up to the reality of “don’t know!”? Samsara’s delusion becomes Nirvana’s enlightenment with a simple blinked eye open, waking to the unmistakable reality that this whole wide world and the great currents and flows of our experience, the confusions and disappointments and laughter and triumphs are all expressions of “just right here”, the this-very-moment-ness of liberation itself, the absolute made up in its finest details out of the piece-by-piece of the relative, with all ideas, concepts, and judgements fallen away. With no ideas, concepts, judgements, what could one ‘know’? Let go of knowing, and suddenly the whole expansive world opens up, fresh before us. And so too, then, anger, when we step past the notion of a single, limited “ego” self, when we step past the fundamental delusion of our separateness one from another, can be transformed to wisdom, to understanding, to clarity. The sharp eye of anger that sees the world in fine detail, ready to look for openings to strike, suddenly recognizes itself-as-the-whole-world in every glance, and the clarity of the vision that anger has brought becomes a deep understanding of where suffering arises, where delusion obscures, seeing the cracks and crevices of hurt and pain and violence, knowing them as openings in need of great compassion.

I left anger for last, because for me, this is where fear enters the picture. For me, my relationship with fear is such that I no longer see it as an emotion distinct from anger. It has all the same energy, all the same vehemence, all the same capacity to recognize details that might otherwise be lost. Fear is only anger moving in a different direction, pouring inward, rather than raging outward, finding all the spaces that can be hurt inside, looking at all of the fine detail of our own makeup, and knowing where and how to hurt it, to take it apart, to destroy it. For many this is an old insight – my oldest friend reflected on this intertwining to me when we were still teenagers. And I saw it then, certainly, knew he was right. But it has taken me a very long time to know how to recognize it at play in the moment of anger, or to recognize the anger in the moment of terror, and let them just be there in my experience without giving them reign over my behavior, or trying to run from them, hide them, or press them down and away.

And so tonight, right now, I have fear in me. I am afraid, if quietly and not abjectly, of what my actions and words may have unwittingly done. But it occurs to me that I have never been furious where I was not also terrified, inasmuch as I have never been angry when I was not holding on to something, some idea or wish about myself or another, that I wanted to protect, to hold steady, to not allow to change. It is greed – the desire to hold things still, to have firm ground upon which we can stand and build an solid sense of self, a notion of self divided from other – that springs up in those moments, it is greed that turns us inward, curling in toward ourselves, and in so doing, allows anger to pour down into us, watching its destructive energy wash over the whole of our landscape of thought and emotion and word and sound and perception and memory, until we know just how we are unmade. That desire to be something solid, that greed, generates anger, and when our fear becomes overwhelming as it courses through us, it finds momentum and swings back in and around, and rushes out, and in changing direction, becomes fury and vehemence and rage and violence.

I’m afraid I’m not enough, that who I am – this utterly false ‘solid’ self that has space in this consciousness – is shaken by my mistakes, that I will have to let go and become something else. And I can recognize it and I know the fear and doubt to be unnecessary, but I still feel them. But if I am never other than the whole world, then this emotion is not my own, but rather an emotion that runs more broadly, an experience that if “I” am having, then “we all” are having. Which makes me not alone. There is never a separate me to be alone. And so I can look toward making right the harm without further fear, without a need to make myself ‘right’, without a need to find distance from the result of my action. I cannot be alone, I cannot be unmade, there was never a me separate from any other to be alone, to be unmade, and so no one separate to hold a grudge or judge and find me wanting. Only all of us at the same moment as I say that I am sorry, that I am committed to making right, that I atone and will atone for the harm I have caused. As I have said to one friend and will say to another when there is the right moment.

On Nihilism

A theme has occurred to me repeatedly in the last weeks and months, and I would like to comment on it before the central insight of it slips from me.

It has occurred to me as I watch popular media. Kung Fu Panda. Man of Tai Chi. True Detective. Others, though these are worthwhile examples of where my head has been while contemplating this. Each, in their way, grapple with an existentialist question of being and nothingness. Perhaps they did not intend to, exactly – except for True Detective, which most certainly knows what its about – but there’s a common thread nonetheless.

Jung said “Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.” This is where I would like to start. Or, rather, end, though it is with it as inspiration that I begin.

There is nothing outside of this. This very world, this moment, my cold fingers as I type, the lingering illness, the frozen image of a movie on the TV screen where I paused it to write, the settling of sunflower seeds and dates in my stomach, the dog barking outside, the quiet-almost-unheard hum of the A/C, my thoughts as they cast about for the next word, the language as it writes with and without my consent. The recognition that “my” in all of the above is an unfounded ontological assumption that presumes a possible subject and object and a relationship between them that suggests hierarchy, even an authoritarian subjugation of soma to psyche, or psyche to ‘self’.

There is nothing outside of this. The study of Zen has presented this insight over and over. If there are gods, they are not other than as I am, made of this self-same stuff, whatever it may be. I am not a materialist-reductionist, I don’t mind if there are ‘modes’ of being that are not material, that do not lend themselves to a mode of inquiry based on reductionism and isolation, as powerful as those tools may sometimes prove to be. Frankly, my own proclivities would welcome the possibility of non-material modes of being. But whatever other modes there may be, they are still of this and nothing else. There is no external meaning. There is no sanctioning authority outside of all the rest. There is nothing watching us, judging us, keeping us. And wherever the Way may be as it moves through, there is still only this. The Source itself is beyond knowing and speaking of, but I cannot dive any deeper into it, plumb any depth of ontology and not come back with only this, as it is right here, now, my breath in and out.

There is nothing outside of this. There is a kind of nihilism in it, but there perhaps should be. We need a nihilism, a clarity that cuts through everything else we imagine, in order to see what is. Meaning is a shadow, a play of images. It is not real. That can be liberating or it can be terrifying and it’s perfectly alright if it’s both.

I mentioned three films above, and they run a pretty broad spectrum, but I think they make a compelling case that this is not an insight limited to philosophical speculation. Tai Long in Kung Fu Panda, Donaka Mark in Man of Tai Chi, and Rust in True Detective each, in their way, have recognize this kind of nihilism. They have a kind of freedom. They have seen that there is no meaning, that there are no rules, nothing outside of just us, just here, right now. Nothing to judge, no one to condemn us. That there is no standard for morality, for good and evil, no right and wrong, no better and worse. In the two kung fu movies, “power” becomes the obvious marker then – might making right. Rust goes in a different direction, seeing a kind of fatedness to it all, a Nietzschean eternal return, an inescapability, “power” here perhaps a will to power, but in a sense of the simple and mindless energetic-mechanics of an impersonal and dispassionate universe playing themselves out over and over and over again.

I will return to Love, but I want to spend moments longer with nihilism.

I think the worst possible thing we can do is to attempt to refute this nihilism, this recognition of emptiness. It grabs hold and shakes us soundly – and if it does not, we have not really stared closely into the dark – because there is an undeniable reverberation of reality about it. In our moments of clarity, our eyes open, and we too see the world as it is – bare of other imaginations, meanings, layers of hope and dread, of desire and revulsion. Clarity requires that we embrace this nihilism. There is nothing outside of this. The world is empty of meaning that transcends the moment to which the meaning is inextricably bound. Truths are never abstract and universal, only fragmented, momentary, and contingent. We see both the fractal, infinite nature of the world and its cracked-discordant-brokenness at once. If there is a pattern we are locked in and always have been, if there is no pattern then we are without purpose, plan, or hope. Both, perhaps, are true at their edges, but likely something far stranger beyond the boundaries of the thoughts that my brain – by accident of genetics, physiology, lifestyle, education, and even very likely its constraint to the biological parameters of life on this kind of planet, around this kind of star – is capable of.

Delusion is all that can result from an attempt to cling to a hope for meaning to the world that transcends the this-ness of the world. Meaning, where it exists, arises from the world itself in the way that heat arises from fire – a part of it, due to it, and dependent on it, fading when the fire fades. And with a rejection of meaning as something that guides the world from outside, that is not part of the world and thereby subject to manipulation and modification just the same as all else, it becomes implausible to look to meaning as a hope for ‘sense’ in the universe. The ontological ground of the universe is itself in flux, and what was true before is not true in the next moment, not by the same standards, as that ontological ground is itself not outside of this-ness. Clarity means an acknowledgement of a rejection of superfluous transcendental meaning, a kind of nihilism to see what is.

It is only by saying yes to the clarity of a kind of nihilistic-emptiness that Love can ever fully open. Only when we struggle to hold on to meaning does the absence of meaning seem so stark and terrifying to us. Only when we expect order do we recoil from chaos. I can look at the emptiness of the universe, the emptiness of the world, its voidness of meaning, and say “yes” to it, and find in my heart compassion for those who suffer, to find wonder and mystery in the brokenness and uncertainty of the world around me. If there is a “God” to whom I could pray, it would be only this – the opening of Love not despite, but because, of the clarity of emptiness around us.

Love is a word far too loaded with religious, political, affective, and flagrantly sentimental values to ever mean what I would like for it to mean here. So let me begin again.

When I was in a ceremonial house in Peru, I saw a vision of a man holding a gun, anger in his eyes, as he willfully pulled the trigger and gunned down a little girl. She was already dirty, standing beside a mound of earth, her little skirt ragged, her shirt torn, as unidentifiable as her face, all streaked with filth. He fired, and she fell. And all around them both, without differentiation, I could see like it was particles of energy, what I would call Love, as if it surrounded, infused, and was the stuff of both. Their possibility. It was the earth linking their feet, the matte black of the gun, the burnt smell in the air, the blood in her veins as she fell to the ground, already forgotten, the anger in his eyes as he ceased to see her, had never seen her. There was Love, something that had never judged either of them, had never considered them as separate at all, had never known their shape as anything other than itself, that would never understand the scene as anything other than something to be gently held, a life, a death, a gunshot, the embrace of the earth as it took in the little slain form. This Love did not explain itself, did not enter a world of morality or meaning. It did not refute emptiness. It did not deny suffering, disease, death. It looked at them, it was them, and it was with them. This is the Love I mean, when I say that Love opens up, looks in the face of emptiness. Love was already with emptiness when we conceived of it after having wished for fullness, for meaning. Emptiness never existed either, it was just another, final layer of meaning that we had waiting after we had stripped away every other word and delusion the world had been painted with.

For me this is the Bodhisattva ideal. Love is not a response to the deviation of “power” as it presents itself as the only worthy tool in an empty world. Love was before power, and has no need to deny it, to struggle with it. Power screams into the dark that there is nothing, all is void, and only by it can anything move or become. Love nods, but knows power only as energy, a force that acts on other forces, without the moral component that power simultaneously denies but depends on, and wishes so wholly to affirm.

I had a dream a few weeks ago, where a torch was lit in my heart. Or, I was given a torch, and it was the opening of my heart, as it entered my chest. It was both at the same time, and it happened at the self-same moment that I made a choice for my heart to be open. It was a gift and a decision at the same time. There was no difference between subject and object, or, rather, there was simultaneously a recognition of a subject/object and the impossibility of that separation, and a decision and a gift could coincide at precisely the same moment. The torch was the decision/gift of compassion, or Love, however phrased or understood.

To be with emptiness, to embrace the clarity of nihilism, and to open to Love – to reach across with compassion and not down with magnanimity is the only ‘religion’ I can understand for myself. I am the very stuff of every other. If there is no meaning outside of this, then we are not “going” anywhere. There is nowhere else to be, no story to finish, no ideal to make real. What then is there but the suffering of those around us, the fears and uncertainties that keep us divided, deluded? We could control them with Power. There is no one to tell us no. It is not even “wrong”, as there is no standard, no authority to judge nor to which we must bow. But to what end? What story do we tell with power, what ideal do we realize, what hope do we express that is not ultimately a delusion, one that will wind its way to nothing, to still more emptiness?

Love as I understand it is not a refutation of chaos and suffering. Love is not an answer, as if to say “yes, there is suffering, but Love makes up for this”, and to leave the theodicy of it with a simplistic and trite response. It may well be that there are not answers, not in the way we would like, to the questions we want solved. Buddha describes a man shot with an arrow, who before he will allow it to be taken from his body and his wound treated, requires that someone describe to him who shot the arrow and who his family was, what the bow looked like and from what kind of tree the wood was taken, the type of metal in the arrowhead, etc. Perhaps our demand for meaning is, itself, as one of these questions. And perhaps Love is withdrawing the arrow and tending the wound.

On agency and structure – or why some and not others?

A week or two ago I ended up in a conversation with a few friends of mine. After a couple of beers all around, the topics at hand – discussion of the performance over the last year of a few mutual projects, plans for the coming year – drifted into more esoteric territory. I’ve spent the last few years studying religion in Latin America, and the anthropology of religion more generally, and as we began to talk about the nature of free will, whether it exists or whether it’s an illusion of chemistry in our minds, we headed into territory that I enjoy discussing. This led to a discussion on how it is that some people seem to ‘make it’ – economically, socially, politically – and others fail to thrive. Positions came out in interesting ways, and tended broadly toward poles that I would describe as “strong agency” and “strong structure.” That is to say that though no aggressive positions were laid out, and no one seemed to particularly take up the gauntlet for any one position to the exclusion of the others, the rhetorical movements suggested a keen awareness of the tension between the historical agency of a given individual – his or her capacity to make a way in the world – and the structured nature of our capacities and possibilities in socio-cultural, political-economic, intellectual, and even biological terms. I put my two cents in, given my anti-statist and anti-capitalist leanings, but the old structure-vs-agency debate doesn’t lend itself to concrete positions: too oriented toward structure and we become determinists, too much emphasis on agency and we slide into neoliberalist rhetoric of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

If I didn’t take a hard-and-fast stance on a position during the conversation, I nevertheless chatted with relative ease over the rhetorical points I’m used to making in discussions like that, stemming from my own tendencies to post-Left anarchist political theory. But the conversation has replayed itself in my head on and off, and I’ve realized that my politics tend to obscure a more ready response to any given discussion, as I encounter it. I tend to have my ‘beliefs’ lined up and ready for distribution – I do my best no longer to explicitly defend or attack any position, but with my own ‘-isms’ already arranged, I tend to frame what I hear and what I understand in those terms, and respond accordingly.

I am a practicing Zen Buddhist. I’ve begun to realize that, if I’m to take a commitment to compassion and understanding seriously, especially in terms of being simply honest and present to the world as it arises, that my political stances are, like all other beliefs, provisional and contingent constructions – thoughts, as it were, hardened or sedimented into a habitual pattern. Recognizing this – over and over again – I’ve decided to take another look at how I might go about trying to engage with the questions that were raised.

My knee-jerk response to phrases like ‘pull oneself up by the bootstraps’ is to line up sociological analysis or historical critique that discredit the underlying myopia of privilege that this kind of rhetoric tends to entail. I’m not walking that back – I do have a very real discomfort, to the point of outrage, with any sense in which the victim is blamed for their own misery, especially when that misery tends to be caused or exacerbated by political-economic systems that work to sustain and support those who are using said rhetoric. However, I know the people that I was talking to very well, and these are not people who would see a family hungry on the street and let them stay that way. These people give back to their friends, their neighborhoods, their churches, and their community. The question was not raised to point a finger in blame, but rather honestly investigating why some people from seemingly identical circumstances are able to “make it”, when others are not. It was the way in which I responded to that question previously that I want to address more fully. Or, rather, I want to propose a different way. This is an exercise, for me, in attempting to apply Buddhist principles of compassion and understanding to my own engagement with political discourse, and even with political expectation. Applying it in my life means applying it in all of my life.

What happens when I apply compassion to a question of those who, for one reason or another, do not ‘make it’ in economic, political, or social terms? First, though, what is it I’m trying to say when I say ‘make it’? I am not in any way implying some kind of naturalized or objective standard of ‘success’ in any one life. I could not pretend to venture an all-inclusive standard by which this could be judged, even for just middle-class urban and suburban people in the US, or even just in my home town. Rather, I’ll address it in terms that were evident in our conversation that evening. Many of us at that meeting came from poor backgrounds, whether that meant relying on government lunch programs at school or handouts from the church, or even having had to fight our way to and from the bus stop some days. So, in that context, ‘making it’ referred to those of us, and those we knew, who had gotten out of that kind of life, who had gone on to be, effectively, middle class. I am not celebrating that as ‘making it’ as any kind of endorsement in some kind of bourgeois way. Rather, I’m recognizing that for many lower to lower-middle class Americans, the desire to have stability – a nice house, a car or two, the ability to buy things for their kids, the desire, in short, to become middle class – is a very real, meaningful goal. Making that transition is often the work of a lifetime. I’m not, in this brief essay, engaging with the ethics of a consumer culture, or the ideology of acquisition and accumulation that underlie it. I’m only recognizing the legitimacy, within these cultural constraints, of those goals, and the moral-ethical force they have in ordering many lives.

In those terms, how do we understand someone who has not ‘made it’? I believe, here, compassion has us look at structure. What are the forces arrayed against them? What are the realities – economic, political, historical, cultural – that have constituted their subjectivities, their worldviews, their outlooks, and thereby the tools they have at hand with which to effect agentive change in their lives, and simultaneously the obstacles that work toward making those tools ineffective? Systemic racism, class-ism, sexism and the like barely scratch the surface of that kind of analysis. We need insights along the lines of Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, and Butler, at the minimum, to begin any such discussion. This is where compassion, I believe, leads. Rather than try to find some quality of character or some essence of the person – or even some pivotal event – that is lacking in those who have not reached this – admittedly arbitrary – marker of class-mobility, it serves far better to look at these individual people, and understand them in their specificity. Here we look at what a potentially antagonistic ‘structure’ does – in its disciplining, and even its constituting – to situate lives in such a way as to make certain kinds of mobility or certain historically or economically-agentive acts more and less feasible, or even possible. I believe that compassion, in this sense, is understanding, as it opens on recognizing people just as they are, without judgement or expectation. Of course, what we do with that information – how we then act politically when we recognize the structural forces at play – is a far more potentially revolutionary question.

But, so the argument would go, there are those who ‘make it’. There are always, within any given population, some who do fit the image having ‘pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,’ and made it out of a situation that trapped so many others. I have, of course, any number of leftist critiques of this kind of logic. That no ‘one’ makes it, but is rather propelled by the efforts of a whole community, that without networks of support of whatever kind, it would be impossible to ‘make it’, for the social world is quite literally constituted by other persons, individuals, and so any effect of agency in a social sense always involves the presence of, and friction with, other people. There is no raw ‘stuff’ out of which to ‘make’ oneself, and whatever accidents of biology, birth, and history that produce individuals capable of acts that distinguish them from others must recognize that they have not only been given their field of action by a whole social world, but that they have been constituted by it in virtually every meaningful sense. However – and here I am moving away from my leftist comfort zone – hard work does mean something. We cannot celebrate the historical agency of the oppressed around the world without recognizing it at home. I have seen friends – and I have been among them, as one of them – work nights and weekends for years to build and grow an idea into a functioning business. It was always within the context of a community of friends, but the work and the effort and the uncertainty and the resolve absolutely mean something.

And it is here that I would apply a sense of ‘understanding’. That is to say that rather than jump, as I am wont to do, to a critical analysis along the lines of the one laid out in the previous paragraph, to stop for a moment, and address the situation as it arises. There is a sense in which the historical agency of someone has been effective, to ‘make it’, as it were. I’m not denying any of what I said before, and I am not attempting to dehistoricize the individuals – this group of friends and I were, that evening though not all evenings, white, male, and educated. We had between us an extraordinary set of advantages. And yet I’ve worked with them for years, and there has been a very real display of ‘agency’ in the sense of hard work, continued efforts through failure, and the like. What I believe ‘understanding’ then can help to highlight is the set of advantages, strategic moves, choices, supports, possibilities, and even chance encounters that gave rise to the eventual effect of ‘making it’ in these terms. Rather than looking, again, for a set of characteristics, or some reified essence or attribute, that ’caused’ a person to succeed (in their own sense of the word), the application of ‘understanding’ or even ‘wisdom’ in Buddhist-ethical terms makes it possible engage with what made such an outcome possible. And again, here, understanding becomes compassion, when looked at this way, as it does not undercut a celebration of individual efforts or delegitimize a person’s own historical agency. We are compassionate through that understanding.

In this way, we sidestep the entire conception of blame or praise. We can recognize the limitations of structure, and work through compassion to alleviate the suffering that this can at times cause. We can acknowledge and even celebrate individual historical agency without essentializing the – always contingent in both its manifestation and definition – ‘success’ of a person’s efforts. I am a consistent advocate of the notion that agency is made from structure, and structure is produced by agency, in a constant dialectical process. Human lives and bodies are the manifest site of historical forces, where these forces find their expression and resistance simultaneously. I do not recognize structure and agency to be distinct from one another, at one level of analysis. But at the same moment, they do act as rhetorical poles from which many – even casual, like the conversation of my friends and I – investigations begin, or to which they are often drawn to end. What I want to suggest, and it is of course not radical but perhaps merely a Buddhist-flavored ethical stamp on what has been the practice of social scientists and others for decades, is that compassion and understanding be the guiding motivations behind the application of these two rhetorical poles in analysis. Grounding the application of structure and agency in compassion and understanding leaves impotent the political impulse to blame the victim, or to praise the exception, but rather aids in opening up our beliefs – and our hearts – to insights that work toward liberation from suffering, whether understood as economic, political, bodily, or spiritual suffering.