Friday 28 November 2008

Respect:offering value

This post is a comment on the reference in 'Following the Moon' to 'self-respect and respect for others.' For me, the issue of respect is a major one – it touches into what can be a chronic lack, a lack that we experience as having no worth. This sense whirls one's along a track, in a semi-conscious way, of seeking accomplishment, security or the approval of others. And as with all confused needs, no matter how much one gets, it isn't enough. This is because we're looking for an inner foundation of self-value without which we are prone to anxiety and depression . But racing along the treadmill of external accomplishments doesn't allay that need. And one's fellow racers are too busy to applaud.

This 'self-value' stuff may sound odd in a Buddhist world-view which doesn't see or seek any permanent and lasting self. What self is there to be valued anyway? However the contradiction is more verbal than experiential. The realisation of non-self is based upon having a very solid foundation in mind-base,
citta. And this mind-base is experienced (for those not completely enlightened) as 'my basic self' beneath the role-play and the thoughts and moods of mental behaviour. You can't realise that this doesn't have to be held onto as me and mine until you've accessed it, nourished it, strengthened it and cultivated it. In other words you train your behaviour to access your (apparent) self, and you explore this apparent self to realise something that stands up for itself and doesn't need holding onto. For most people, denying that they have a self just gives rise to a 'self' ( a program of mental behaviour) based on denial. And if we don't seek a healthy and balanced self, we don't arrive at not-self, but rather at an unhealthy and imbalanced self.

Self-respect is a sign of psychological health. It's a primary factor in the Path: the sense that I have worth, that I have potential for improvement, and that I can move towards the good and the true. Without that sense, you don't have the confidence/faith to get going. In Buddhist cultivation, this self-respect is largely derived through reference to our ethical sense. We can refrain from harming, from stealing, from lying and so on. The factor that supports that is not fear of punishment or moralising righteousness, but 'conscience' (
hiri). That is: because one values oneself, one doesn't act in ways that aren't worthy. One doesn't stain the ethical clarity that we are all heirs to as human beings.

This sense also covers other actions such as generosity: in the suttas the layman Isidatta when questioned by the Buddha, realises that he is 'free from the blight of stinginess, open-handed, a friend to ask a favour of.' But only then. It's poignant but true - many people don't notice or value the many acts of kindness, thoughtfulness that they do every day. Or the many small choices they make to do to put aside an unskilful impulse or to put themselves out to benefit another. It seems that sometimes it takes the attention and concern of a wise being before we realise what we have lost sight of in ourself. And we don't see a wise being unless we have a mind that can look out for, attune to and respect others. Some people couldn't even 'see' the Buddha.

So the other part of the equation, that of respecting others is also essential. Who are you going to rely on? Often in the suttas, disciples will comment 'It is a great blessing for me to be associated with a worthy companion such as ....' This is the development involved with 'concern',
ottappa: that is, one so values and respects others that their opinions are a source of concern (and gladness) to you. With ottappa we hold ourselves as responsible and accountable - so much so that we seek out the comments and feedback of other people: their opinions count. And if we can't respect others, what kind of blindness is that?

Sometimes people assume that the Buddhist message is 'Think for yourself, be a Refuge to yourself.' Or (mis) intepret the
Kalāma Sutta (Anguttara 3, 65) as advocating that we shouldn't follow a teacher, a tradition, but know for ourselves. True enough, it does say something like that, but also adds that one shouldn't follow one's own reasoning or view. The point is that one shouldn't follow anything blindly. And how does one with some dust in their eyes not follow anything blindly? The Buddha points to the sense of 'to others as to myself'. How would I feel if others harmed or abused me? This moral sense, that in us which can acknowledge the pain caused through abuse, physical, verbal, sexual or substance based - that conscience is our guide. Then from that place we can check out any view that we hold about ourself or the world. What does it feel like? And where does following that view take you? If it takes you to cynicism, depression or righteousness, then it's to be abandoned, isn't it?

The other reference in the Kalāma Sutta is the acknowledgment that actions are praised or censured by the wise. The moral sense isn't just a personal opinion, it links us to a shared ethical sensitivity. And it’s only when you can place your actions within this twin focus of conscience and accountability that you can really know 'for yourself' that what you're doing is skilful. So I find it a great blessing when someone points out one of my blind spots in a kind and concerned way. When the sense is ‘Because I see you as a person of integrity, I feel that you’d want to know where you’re tripping up’ - that’s empowering rather than crushing; it strengthens my trust in the sense of value.

This twin focus invigorates the 'we' sense: 'to others as to myself'. It was a guiding star for the Buddha in his own Awakening. ' I understood thus: "This [thought of sense-desire, ill will, cruelty] leads to my own affliction, to others' affliction and the affliction of leads away from Nibbana"' (Majjhima 19). But it' s a 'we' that is a guide for relationship, not an accumulation of identities, or of belonging to a club. And as relationship is a big part of life, it's good to get clear what that 'we' is and what it isn't.

As an example, the monastery where I live has a mix of solitude and communality. We sit together and on our own, we work together and on our own, people come and go. Meanwhile, people from outside the monastery bring food: some cook the food and offer it to the monks, nuns and the rest of the community. Some people come to participate in the life for periods of time. So, although in many ways each of us are on our own with our bodily feelings, energies and mental states, in other ways we’re together in the wider field of spiritual friendship. There's the overriding sense that 'we're in this together,' a heartful sense that replaces the judgmental world of 'him' 'her' and' them.' This 'we' sense gets generated through making like commitments to moral standards and acknowledging each other in that. It doesn't begin with being fond of each other, or through trying to hold everyone into some model community. In fact people often need a good amount of space as much as affirmation and bonding, space in which they can establish their autonomy and self-respect. If it does ( and it doesn't always - people can just dig themselves deeper into their misery or conceit) then it's more possible for them to see and respect others as aspirants. And that leaves us with the right to have different angles. The 'we' sense is more about harmony than conformity.

This sense aligns us to being part of a flexible community of purpose and Awakening which is located all over the world and stretches through time. It’s a community of value (puñña): more than just a group of people, it’s a ‘field’ of the skilful actions and skilful results that people have cultivated. Which is how of course it's 'not-self.' It's not people's personalities that we're respecting but the values that they are living or have lived. (Even if they fell away from them at times.)

Meeting and interacting puts this 'we' sense into practice. We can get very idealistic and righteous when we're on our own and don't have to meet the enigmas of other people. The problem with being on your own is that the default is to operate through one's own views and angles. Then when we meet others, what arises is 'Why can't everyone be normal like me?' We come in with expectations of how the other should be, how they should fit my agenda or view; we get conceited and judgmental; we take or expect an individual to be void of defects or idiosyncrasies. Idolisation then leads to demonisation. Or we claim that my group, my lineage, my tradition is pure and true and everyone who sees things otherwise is deluded or corrupt. Or we dismiss and scapegoat others through focusing purely on their flaws - or even just the bits that we don't like. Messy stuff indeed. So why bother with communities, or interaction at all?

To me, interaction exercises hiri-ottappa; it stretches the 'we' sense. Respecting people who I'm not on the same wavelength with is part of growing up. Ignoring or putting up with others isn't enough - for Awakening, I don't what to have any numb or stale patches in my awareness. And the most useful acccess point at the place of contact is the ethical sense: 'this is a being like me who has a feeling for right and wrong.' When there are difficulties between us, can I help us get back to that 'we' sense that I believe we all cherish? And still it takes confidence in that focus for me to be with others without feeling nervous and trying too hard to make it work. Because sometimes it takes time and trust to gt through the complexities and the personality views to the place where we're just fellow humans. But it's one useful thing about Sangha life – you have to handle the impressions of self. You have to meet peope whom you wouldn't have chosen to live with. Then again, sometimes you have to become someone, in terms of role, that you don't want to be - you don't like to tell people what to do, and you get put in that position; you're rather introverted and shy, and you have to be a public figure. So the sense that 'he's weird' and 'she's one of those' and 'I'm supposed to be this' keeps coming up at the point of misfit.

But the beauty of all this misfit is that the latent tendencies, the projections and preferences and views, get laid out naked. They form some interesting patterns: ‘Is it just my fault-finding mind that finds you loud-mouthed and insensitive, or is it something you need some feedback on?’ (Irritation and conceit). ‘Then again, what do people really think of me?’ (Doubt and conceit) . Or how about: ‘ I have forgiven you the terrible injustices that you have wreaked on me with your unacknowledged authority issues.’? (Just plain conceit). Not much 'we' in any of that. But the weirdest twist in community interactions is the realisation that other people haven't noticed the shadows and defilements that I feel I have, and seem to like and even value me...Other people blow out the opinions I have about myself.

At any rate, because the play of self-impressions is pointing to some powerful and deluding tendencies it’s worth being in an averagely dysfunctional community. It asks us to hold the sense of respect more firmly than the fears and fantasies of the mind. Then the big learning that comes through in glimmerings and dawnings, is that behaviour, function and so on are kamma and not self. So finally, it's not 'your' fault or 'my' fault, just the unsatisfactoriness of the kamma of personhood. Whew! Then, more than approval or disapproval, what counts is to get out of forming a self out of action and behaviour. And to get there, I find, comes through tuning into that which is worthy of respect, and to that which can do the respecting.

Along with a good grounding in compassion, what helps is to keep widening the mind's energy and focus so that there is a lot of conscious, inactive but alert, space. This stops the contraction that always accompanies a judgemental mind-set, and checks the tightening and solidifying that forms a self-view. That 'we' sense is more than an idea, it has an energetic basis. Of course widening and checking do take a fair amount of patience and mindfulness. But that's what we're here for, and thank you world for being such an exasperating place.

So the reflection and practice of 'not-self' facilitates a relationship rather than denies that there's anyone to relate to. It's the kind of relationship in which there are no good or bad people, there's just bright and dark kamma - yours, mine, whoever, it doesn't really matter. Because with the understanding and compassion that that brings, we don’t get stuck with self-images, and we can let it all change. And a field of wisdom and compassion is going to support the best kind of change. In this way we set up the possibilities for our own and other people’s release. This is the highest form of respect, respect for the Dhamma as it is lived and breathed.

Saturday 1 November 2008

Following the moon

This photograph is of a full moon over the western end of the meditation hall in the monastery in which I live. In accordance with our tradition, these full moon days are the days when we recollect our rules and ethical guidelines and meditate through the night. The full moon acts a wonderful time-piece for a human endeavour that is cool but persistent.

In Buddhist monasteries we follow the lunar calendar. Actually the one we follow doesn't quite synchronise with the full and new moons. It's a calendar that's devised in Thailand, and it follows a pattern of fourteen and fifteen day cycles. In any one season there will be two fourteen day gaps between the the ‘moon days’ and six fifteen day gaps but it's still an imperfect match with the solar calendar. Every few years we have to add an extra lunar month to fit the lunar calendar within the solar year. And every now and then an extra day gets thrown in for good measure. The result of this is that the great Buddhist festivals, which all occur on the days of the full moon, change their solar dates every year in a way that's impossible to predict. So, Vesakha Puja, which is the major Buddhist festival, can occur on more or less any day in May, or even in June. The three months' Rains Retreat which marks the time when we're not allowed any major travel, has a different day of starting and finishing each year. Trying to balance between solar and lunar and between the West and Thailand is an aspect of the peculiar dynamic we find ourselves in in bringing an Asian tradition to the West. And there are many more....

But then, before you get too convinced of the rational and regular standards of the West, notice that the solar calendar with its leap years and months of differing days doesn't fit the cosmic order either. And why have seven days per week, and why have days and months named after Norse gods and Roman emperors? What's the logic in having months named 'seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth' ( September, October, November, December) which are lined up as the ninth through twelfth months of the year? And where does the day go when we cross the International Dateline?

It gets more uncertain the further you go. No sunrise and sunset, just a ceaseless turning. The earth neither flat nor spherical but a lumpy pear-shape in an irregular orbit around a seething and explosive ball of gas. Then you realise: it's not the cosmos that doesn't fit, it's the measurements.

That brings us back home, if slightly queasy. Where is the firm ground? How can we know anything? 'Mind is the basis,' is the Buddhist response, 'and somewhere in there a still centre of knowing.' But it doesn't measure things in terms of hours and minutes, kilos and grams, euros and dollars. All you can really know is cause and effect - which means that everything I do and say ( and even think) affect everything in 'my' cosmos. In fact these behaviours become who I feel I am, and form the world that presses in ( or wraps around me). And, although the patterns are reliable, the specific details of that self and world are always changing. My thoughts, feelings, relationships and material resources, are all as subject to change as the political and economic climate.

How to know what to do, and who to be, is something I started asking myself in my mid-teens ( in the saner moments). What are we here for? What is a valuable way to live? How do we weigh it up? Money, status, happiness? From my standpoint, the social norm, at least in my family, seemed to be to get a 9-5, 5 day a week job, get a car, get a marriage, get a mortgage, work fifty years, and get a heart-attack. How did imagination, joy, stillness, awe and above all freedom, fit into that? But to others, what counted was a good house, a steady job, and a way to raise children in financial security. And that made sense if you'd lived through a war and a financial depression. It all depended on where your sense of value lay.

But if there's a universal value to guide our lives, it has to be broader and more fundamental than the career we take on, or the state of the society we're in. The real thing isn't a matter of what road we travel, but how well we drive. And learning to do that...well that has to begin with touching the ground you're always on. One way of doing that quite literally is by plunking yourself down on the earth, sitting upright and breathing out...and breathing in....Those of you who do just this know what guidelines and skills evolve out of that. When your purpose is just sitting and being with breathing, the habitual mind doesn't have anything to play with. It spins loose, reveals itself as a mad monkey - and requires us to generate vast patience, firm kindness, and clarity. Not even to control it, but just to develop a wonderful and world-changing response. Because this monkey-mind has grown out of my responses ( and reactions) to the wobbling world around me, it's time to develop a saner response. And then we touch the true human ground: care and respect for self and others; tolerance and compassion for self and others; and the equanimous humour that knows none of this is lasting, or our true centre. This is the guideline, wherever, whoever. It's a light of knowing that is gentle and cool as moonlight, an inner light that is a personal reflection of the Buddha's brilliant sun. Whatever the life-journey, what else can you follow?