Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An Apparition

I should be working on my taxes, but thinking about good and bad is more fun.

I was thinking today more about good and bad, especially since my friend was sending me email questions every few minutes. I started thinking how, before humans were on Earth, there was no good and bad. If such things exist today, they are apparitions, lodged in our head with hate, love, desire, and miscellaneous emotions. Do they exist? Does anything exist? Can you find them in a Neiman Marcus catalog... or even an old Sears catalog?

I asked one of the residents at the zen center what he thought. He said that he likes to use the terms "skillful means" and "unskillful means" because then there is no judgement (his words, not mine) and we can differentiate (my word) by determining if the action led to the reduction of suffering in the world (or not).  He then pointed out that we were all part of the same thing, so our actions are really done onto ourselves.

Is this all just a semantic game? Is there really any difference between the people who follows the ten commandments and those that follow the sixteen precepts?

5 comments:

Kate said...

I think it is a semantic game.

Slajov Zizek argues that there are so many messed up things going on in Western society that people find it difficult to really deal with these things. Western Buddhism then develops as a means to escape the responsibility of dealing with the real problems before them. If they have to recognize that that good and evil exist, then you see evil and see problems and you are facing a certain kind of reality. But if you create a system where the moral chooses of good and evil do not exist (a kind of uber morality in and of itself), then you are no longer obligated to make judgment about actions occurring in the society because there is no right and no wrong, only mental fabrication. It’s a kind of benevolent indifference. A justified apathy or spiritualized compliancy.

Some time ago, I sent some information to a Buddhist group about the development of a new Casino and the dates and times and names of a few groups who were meeting to discuss how to best oppose this development. . . incase anyone was interested.

A woman wrote me back basically blasting me for my “individual crusade”. According to her, this was not a Buddhist issue and it was not appropriate for me to send out this information. She actually wrote, “Buddhists are not supposed to be political.”

I think it is true that people tend to hide behind this uber morality of no-such-thing-as-good-and-evil.

But I also tend to think that this no-good-and-evil gets use to help people move away from the practice of demonizing ‘the other’. If one sees everything as black/white, good/evil. . . the shades of gray don’t exist here. And so this no-good-and-evil is an attempt to recognize the shades of gray in order to keep open lines of communication.

So again, yes I think it is all a game of semantics. If little Joe punches his sister Jill in the head, you can say that was ‘wrong’ or you can say it was ‘unskilled’. Jill doesn’t give a shit because her head still hurts either way.

And as far as you last question. . . Is there really any difference between the people who follows the ten commandments and those that follow the sixteen precepts?

In my experience, the Christians understand the need for political action and organization and seem much more willing to express a ‘shared political agenda’ then the Buddhist counterparts. . . for better and for worse.

Kate said...

I think it is a semantic game.

Slajov Zizek argues that there are so many messed up things going on in Western society that people find it difficult to really deal with these things. Western Buddhism then develops as a means to escape the responsibility of dealing with the real problems before them. If they have to recognize that that good and evil exist, then you see evil and see problems and you are facing a certain kind of reality. But if you create a system where the moral chooses of good and evil do not exist (a kind of uber morality in and of itself), then you are no longer obligated to make judgment about actions occurring in the society because there is no right and no wrong, only mental fabrication. It’s a kind of benevolent indifference. A justified apathy or spiritualized compliancy.

Some time ago, I sent some information to a Buddhist group about the development of a new Casino and the dates and times and names of a few groups who were meeting to discuss how to best oppose this development. . . incase anyone was interested.

A woman wrote me back basically blasting me for my “individual crusade”. According to her, this was not a Buddhist issue and it was not appropriate for me to send out this information. She actually wrote, “Buddhists are not supposed to be political.”

I think it is true that people tend to hide behind this uber morality of no-such-thing-as-good-and-evil.

But I also tend to think that this no-good-and-evil gets use to help people move away from the practice of demonizing ‘the other’. If one sees everything as black/white, good/evil. . . the shades of gray don’t exist here. And so this no-good-and-evil is an attempt to recognize the shades of gray in order to keep open lines of communication.

So again, yes I think it is all a game of semantics. If little Joe punches his sister Jill in the head, you can say that was ‘wrong’ or you can say it was ‘unskilled’. Jill doesn’t give a shit because her head still hurts either way.

And as far as you last question. . . Is there really any difference between the people who follows the ten commandments and those that follow the sixteen precepts?

In my experience, the Christians understand the need for political action and organization and seem much more willing to express a ‘shared political agenda’ then the Buddhist counterparts. . . for better and for worse.

Kim Mosley said...

There is lots of Buddhist social action, from Buddhists sitting at prisons on the date of executions, to teaching meditation in prisons, to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (http://www.bpf.org/take-action), to the Interdependence Project (http://www.theidproject.org/ (Austin has a chapter)).

Kate said...

Oh I didn’t mean to imply that all Buddhist people were scared of ‘being political’. In fact I would argue that part of the reason Thich Nhat Hanh has become so popular results in part from the discussion of Socially Engaged Buddhism he often presents.

What I wish more to express is that this desire to eliminate good/evil or right/wrong duality as a concept by changing the vocabulary of morality might arise out of some place that is. . . well . . bad. . . or unskilled if you wish. So one needs to ask oneself why he or she might sort of play with the language in such a way. . . which is what you are in fact doing. I just wish to point out a bad side to the no-good-or-evil argument.

I was just using my experience of the non-political climate of Buddhism to demonstrate how Zizek’s statements play out in my life. But because I find the topic of interest, I will add to the non-political Buddhist story.

I have heard the ‘Buddhist are not political’ rhetoric at least three times prior to the pissed-off Buddhist email I described earlier.

Once at a Buddhist Council meeting, this Buddhist monk (who incidentally did prison work you descript) was involved with Interfaith Partnership. At this time the Interfaith Partnership wanted to openly oppose some guy’s proposed legislation that would end affirmative action in St. Louis. He wanted to know if the Buddhist Council would be on board with doing this. One woman got upset and didn’t feel that the council could say Buddhists were against this. This was ‘wrong’. And as she’s arguing against this guy she said, “Buddhists aren’t supposed to be political!” He responded, “Yes they can if they are Socially Engaged Buddhist!” I believe it was decided that the guy would find out more about what exactly the Interfaith Partnership was saying and what this proposed legislation actually was. Which never really happened because the guy move out of the state.

The second time was when the Buddhist Council was wanting to put on a talk for Mindfulness Day. They decided that that the topic would be something with ‘human rights’. And this monk says, “Yes, human rights but not political.” I started laughing when she said this. Everybody looked at me like, ‘Is she on drugs,’ so I just shut up. But the reason I laughed is because it seemed and still seems absurd to me that people can talk about human right without at least touching on something political. The reason we discuss human rights is because of human right abuses and discussing human right abuses inevitably leads to a discussion of politics and/or economics.

In fact, I did go listen to the speakers the Council brought in for Mindfulness day. First one. . . borded me to near death. Second speaker, better. . . but she was not political. She just talked about an agency that helps refugees here and asked for volunteers. Which is fine. I don’t really have a problem with this. But I think we should just recognize that this is a talk about helping refugee and not a talk about why there are refugees.

The last time the non-political talk occured resulted when I just asked why the Buddhist Council members seemed so reluctant to get involved with certain legislations or issues that other organizations readily supported and to which each member of the Council also supported. And it sort of became a bunch of logistics about whether or not they would lose their non-profit status by participating in any way. And of course I went and asked a few other church leaders (various Christian churches) how it was that they didn’t worry about losing their non-profit status. All of them sort of expressed the idea that they could support or oppose issues. They couldn’t support or oppose candidates. That made sense to me until I remembered later that one of the Reverends was running for office.

Kate said...

So today the author of the ‘Buddhists aren’t supposed to be political’ pissed-off email just sent an email to the group list serve to stop the government from bulldozing a Stupa (which was never in danger of being bulldozed in the first place. . . misinformation). I wrote her back, “I seem to remember someone writing me that Buddhists weren’t supposed to be political. Understand me a little better now?” She sent me another pissed off email and said she was putting me on spam filter so I shouldn’t bother responding.

Kate 1 . . . Pissed off Buddhist 0