Kindness is Powerful (2)

“View people’s moral character in terms of habits that can be changed instead of as fixed,
inborn properties.”
Aristotle, paraphrased by Elliot D. Cohen in The New Rational Therapy: Thinking Your Way to Serenity, Success and Profound Happiness


Last week I mentioned that it seems that hope inspires two types of faith. Fanatic faith, which we looked at, is toxic. It increases fear and decreases real compassion as a natural result of its focus on an elite entitlement. When you are sure you and yours have the one and only capital-T truth, the battle with doubt is all consuming. As studies in cognitive dissonance make clear, one of the most effective ways to assuage such doubts is to busy oneself proselytizing and bearing testimony as often as possible about how sure you are such and such a creed or ideology is true. People can maintain these dogmatic positions only by constant social and cognitive reinforcement; typically this includes reading only approved material, watching only approved movies, and hanging out only with fellow true believers. Over time these practices narrow a person’s world view.

What might hope look like that is not toxic? Basically it is one that leaves space for the unknown among ethical considerations. It is unwilling to make final judgments about the state of anyone involved in any event. This is a way to recognize and honor what you consider good and evil and seek the good, even while remaining cognizant that this is no more than what your habits born from experience have persuaded you is most worthwhile.

This is not to say there is nothing but personal opinion involved in ethics as a postmodernist might assert. An examination of the nature of the human being as a social mammal shows how the structure of our mind, body and emotions is such that a common code of decent conduct, while not written in stone, is written on the waters of our biological roots. This leads us to look for a middle way between fundamentalism and complete ethical relativity.

Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld’s In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic provides us with a useful exploration of this middle position. They point out that “all one’s moral certainty” could be summed up by one sentence in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany: “The dignity of man is inviolate.” They go on to point out, “It is instructive to recall the historical context of this sentence. If human dignity hadn’t indeed been violated in horrific ways under the Third Reich, the declaration of dignity wouldn’t likely have been put into a state constitution. Not always, but very commonly, certainty in moral judgments arises in situations in which one is forced to confront instances of obvious and massive immorality.”

It is just this historical process that has lead the modern world to condemn torture, the death penalty, and slavery. In each of these cases someone pricked the conscience by saying ‘Look here, look at the details of the rack, the guillotine, and the bull whip.’ It is also just such a historical process that, I suggest, the globalized society is now confronting in the many ramifications of the ongoing, accelerating ecological crisis. All over the world people are screaming ‘Look!’ and pointing to the poisoning of our air, water and lands. “The meaning of the dignity of humankind comes to be perceived at certain moments of history, however, once perceived, it transcends these moments and is assumed to be intrinsic to human being always and everywhere.” (Italics in the original)

One is lead to wonder how long emissions will be allowed to continue. “What we observe, then, is a development in the perception of human dignity and of offenses against it from mere opinions (‘You and I will agree to disagree about slavery’) to universally valid moral judgments (‘I condemn your practice of slavery, and I will do whatever I can to stop you’)… ‘Look at this’, they said, in effect: ‘It must not be allowed to continue.'”

This is not to say that any of these historical developments are inevitable, nor that once obtained they are secured forever. There are plenty of historical cases where a culture succumbs once again to barbarisms it had once set aside. (This should give us pause at a time when the basic institutions of democracy, institutions embodying doubt instead of dogmatic certainty, are being threatened.) This historical development of a culture’s ethical understanding is just the sort of contingent development we have come to recognize as a signature feature of the evolutionary algorithm. It is also a bulwark against the temptation to justify moral certainty only through religious certainty.

In Buddhism there is an emphasis on developing compassion and empathy as a means of working directly with these perceptions of human dignity. The most sophisticated elaboration of Buddhist ethics, along with means for increasing one’s compassionate perception, are found in the Mahayana teachings. As I have been taught them they offer an example of a non-fanatic faith. In the Mahayana there are, for example, the ten precepts. What makes these different than, say, the ten commandments? The Buddhist presentation of these norms includes something we do not normally find in the traditions of the dogmatic, namely, when each of the precepts should be broken for the sake of compassion. In other words, these precepts are not considered the final word that applies to all times and in all conditions because they were revealed from above, but are guides for how we might more wisely think about moral behavior.

This presentation of the Mahayana often includes a retelling of a tale in which committing a murder was the most compassionate act. Note that there is no magic righteousness removing the ‘negative karma’ from the person who commits the murder, something every veteran suffering post traumatic stress certainly understands:

A Buddhist story tells of a ferry captain whose boat was carrying 500 bodhisattvas in the guise of merchants. A robber on board planned to kill everyone and pirate the ship’s cargo. The captain, a bodhisattva himself, saw the man’s murderous intention and realized this crime would result in eons of torment for the murderer. In his compassion, the captain was willing to take hellish torment upon himself by killing the man to prevent karmic suffering that would be infinity greater than the suffering of the murdered victims. The captain’s compassion was impartial; his motivation was utterly selfless.”

There are things we should not do: lie, steal, sexually abuse, and murder are among those universally recognized as wrong, at least when such crimes are committed against members of our own group. If we assume we are trying to be good people and are avoiding these things, how are we to think about other people we see engaging in them?

How we choose to answer that question will determine the degree to which we view the world with compassion. It is easy to hate those which are most justifiably hated. The killer and the torturer are rightly despised. There is a reason that even in prison the child abuser is singled out for particularly harsh treatment by his fellow convicts. All this is true; empathy for the suffering that has been inflicted on the victims requires a heartfelt desire to protect, to stop the evil deeds from being consummated or continued and if that means destroying the person causing the suffering, so be it. If this were all the compassionate heart had to consider, the spiritual path would consist mostly of keeping oneself pure and destroying the evil others.

What happens, however, if we dare to ask about the mind of the perpetrator? What has shaped and formed this mind in such a way that it is driven to commit acts of horror? In a previous cycle of posts we looked a little at the biology of violence and discovered evidence that victimizers had often been victims themselves. As soon as we begin to ask about how a heart of darkness became dark, the whole black and white ethical thinking of the fanatic begins to look like so much ignorance. When we are brave enough to face the darkness in our own hearts the same thing happens. It is just not that easy to hand out damnations.

In Christianity there has long been a theological debate between those who hold that in the end hell will be empty and those that insist on eternal damnation. Those who defend the empty hell position point out that a loving god will need to eventually send his grace to each and every one of his precious children. However lost they might be or whatever sins they might have committed, there must be a means to return their heart to eternal joy if this is to be a god of love. The esoteric teachings about Christ’s three days dead being spent in hell deal with this ethical reversal as well; it is the time when those crying out ‘Lord, Lord’ are found to be last among those who really understand.

One theological camp, those of the empty hell, would like the pain and damage caused by evil actions to be healed so that the victims and those who love them can lead a life that still includes happiness. The other camp focuses instead on the perpetrator and believes harming them will somehow make things right; the joy of those in heaven is said to be watching the suffering of the damned. How much of spirituality is little more than a revenge fantasy?

How hard is it to not grant the victims of horrendous abuse the satisfaction of returning a bit of the pain they have known back to the one that caused it? Alice Miller in The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting argues emphatically that victims of child abuse are unable to take responsible care of themselves as adults until they are able to overcome the taboo that says children must always honor their fathers and mothers. Recognizing reality, the very thing abusers are trying to keep their victims from doing, requires recognizing that some fathers and mothers are monsters. Only when the victim no longer tries to justify the perpetrator’s behavior through convoluted logic will the ability to think and feel rationally be restored. Properly placing and speaking of the rage needs to happen. How does that fit into the overall framework of how we think about what is right and wrong? How does that play out against the larger context of mass media manipulations designed to remove our sense of reality and replace it with childish dependency on the immediate satisfaction of a consumer purchase?

Consideration of what made the perpetrator have the mind they do makes it much harder to harbor thoughts of undiluted hate and revenge. What we learn out here in the real world, out beyond the Sunday school lessons, is that most every criminal was once a victim themselves. The child abuser was abused as a child, the father beating up his five year old was beaten himself. Which leads us to ask where the father’s father received the shame and pain that warped their mind, causing them to act out. “The sins of the father will be visited upon the third and fourth generation” the Bible says in Numbers. This is the dark wheel of samsara, endlessly spinning around and around. Keep returning hate for hate and it never ends; only love can over come hate. This wheel needs to be cut.

What opens up once the simple black and white thinking is abandoned is a vision of vastness; ripples of causes and effects running their way backwards and forwards in time.

What we are being taught is that it is possible for there to be a bodhisattva in hiding – a spiritual giant might be going where the evil is in order to do good. We can never be one hundred percent sure, even in the realm of moral certainty. This follows directly from the truth of equality seen through the eyes of our interdependence. When the eye of compassion looks at an event like arms dealing in the third world it hopes (aka has faith) that among the many people involved there might also be a bodhisattva working undercover. One of the arms dealers might have diverted a shipment or influenced a sale so that it minimized the harm that might otherwise have been done. Or maybe a bodhisattva in hiding was able to accidentally arrange for illegal shipments of small arms to war torn regions to be discovered by the authorities. Who knows?

The Mahayana teaches its ethics within the context of compassion. It does so by not allowing the ethical precepts to be considered absolute. There are times when doing the right thing requires one to lie, steal, kill and even behave sexually outside the norm.

Due to the way I was raised and many of the experiences of my own life I am able to see in the popular Broadway musical and movie Rent an acid test of real kindness. Can you see beyond the shallow, where breaking social norms are sins and the people are just being punished for it, to the deep where lives are being spent in love? What I see in this script are the flawed and raw, the hurt and abused, doing what they can to share among one another what happiness they can know. (Btw, those who see Rent as little more than modern decadence can argue that it is providing a set of likable, talented pretty people with sins larger than our own to salve our guilty conscience. For these people movies like this only encourage lax moral behavior by romanticizing it, confusing our young people even more. It is a legitimate criticism. This is just the way things are when we step out of the abstractions of black and white thinking and take up the mantle of adult understanding; a bit more complicated than what can be captured in a sound bite.)

We have to be careful when trying to pursue the good. Often when we apply a great effort of willpower and try to force our way into virtue, we are really coming from a place of great fear, not compassion for oneself and others. When fear is fueling the willpower behind such disciplines they do not lead to lasting healing. It is a hard thing to be truly wise and compassionate, very difficult. Recognizing this is simultaneously recognizing the many ways in which people can use the concepts of virtue in highly un-virtuous ways.

The point is this: never cut off someone forever from your compassion. That is the one thing we are not allowed to do in the Mahayana way of thinking. But it is equally important that you recognize that you cannot help everyone, at every level, right now. This means it is ok to personally remain neutral for the time being and just wait to see how things continue to play out if need be. You do not always have to make a judgment about whether something is right or wrong on the spot; you can defer judgement as an act of kindness to oneself and others. We enjoy clear, unassailable compassionate thinking when in addition to yes and no our ethical life includes maybe. Accepting this allows us to take our seat, the powerful seat of kindness. Karma is the idea that we can be confident that the reality of events are the causes from which results will be born; they will not be born from whatever con job or delusion might be dominating the mindstreams of some of those involved.

The whole Mahayana structure with its undercover bodhisattvas and exceptions to its ethical vows is an elaboration of the simple sentiment; “I hope some good comes of it.” That is what we say when confronted with an evil but still are capable of feeling hope within us. Understood rightly it is the exact opposite of a Pollyanna point of view. This is just what Mindful Ecology is all about. It looks to the mess we have made of our social arrangements and our relationships with the living earth and refuses to just lay down and die. It looks the storm right in the eye and then gets to work embodying an alternative lifestyle as a way of swaying the probabilities involved in charting our future on this planet. I hope some good will come of it.

The Ground of Goodness

Since April we have been looking at our times as the age in which the limitations on humanity’s ability to continue growing as Homo Colossus start to bite. I’ve said what I think needed to be said, time to move on. We have a lot more territory to cover. Our next investigations will be looking into how the Buddhist lifestyle of low consumption and non-aggression is both ecologically responsible and can teach us how to live a meaningful, high quality life. But first, this is the 100th post. It seems a good time to state again what Mindful Ecology is all about.

We need to wake up to the reality of our situation. We live in a molecular world that follows its own laws to create a spectrum of emergent phenomenon, a very tiny proportion of which we are able to become aware of through our senses and their technological extensions. The primary characteristic of our molecular world is its impermanence; it is everywhere in a state of flux due to the electrical forces that bind the atomic constituents of these molecules. It turns out that electricity, or more generally electromagnetism, is the great shaper of the world as we experience it at the human scale.

Physicists and chemists have taught about the electrical nature of the natural world in the tradition of materialism. Relativity teaches that energy and mass are not two different things and the conservation laws teach that energy and mass cannot be destroyed. The universe is functional across vast reaches of space and time and everywhere in space and time it exhibits, simultaneously, a wholeness that includes the tiniest quantum particles, the largest galaxies and everything in-between. Teachings like this are ways of reminding ourselves that what we encounter when we encounter non-living being is much more than just what meets the eye.

Yogis have taught about the electrical nature of our human nature in the tradition of contemplation using chakras, wheels of energy whirling around seed syllables. These chakras are said to be located at the primary ganglions of the body’s nervous system and at nexus points where the nervous system integrates the muscles, organs and bones. Teachings like this one about the body containing chakras are ways of reminding ourselves that what we encounter when we encounter another living being is much more than just what meets the eye.

Complimentary teachings like these are ways of reminding ourselves that there is a basic goodness to existence in all its detail; the fundamental ground of our experience is that it all works so well together. Even when it doesn’t.

Recognizing the electrical nature of the world that is experienced at the human scale prepares us to better appreciate some of the implications of the modern world’s use of electricity. We all understand that it is the power plants that keep the lights on. Most people also know the majority of these power plants world wide use coal as their fuel, a dirty fuel that is the source of much of the excess carbon emissions driving climate change. What few seem to fully appreciate is the rate of growth these power plants are being asked to serve. Since 1980 the global demand for electricity has doubled. It is expected to double again by 2035. About thirty years for the first doubling, twenty for the second; how long should we expect for the next doubling of demand after that, ten years as per the trend? How long before even the most obstinate among us admits we are on an unsustainable trajectory?

We need to wake up to the reality of our situation. It is not a question of what new green techno-gadget we need to invent to keep the wealth pumps going but a question of what we can do to avoid being hit by the falling debris as the large life support systems of mankind’s built up, artificial environments come crashing down. We should be discussing triage techniques and battlefield tactics, not dreaming of self-driving cars and going to Mars. I ask all people of the beleaguered planet to consider the possibility that what ecology is teaching us today calls for a whole different point of view about what it is to be a human being and why we gather ourselves together in human societies and, perhaps most critically, how our species relates to the rest of the organic and inorganic environments which make up our one and only planetary home.

If one is convinced that the life we live now is unsustainable and has no future, what is a person going to do with such knowledge? It seems that there is so little an individual can do in the face of our collective choices driving our society to make a bad situation worse. If the only hope is for our society to wake up and start making sense, well, that I fear is not much of a hope at all. It looks all the world like our societies are hell-bent for leather on pressing this unsustainability just as far as it can go before crying uncle. Where then should we look for real work that just might be of real benefit to ourselves and, most importantly, might really benefit the next couple of generations that are going to have to live through environmental hell? What can we do? As it happens I believe it is only in the world of individual lives that the true balm for what ails us is to be found.

I am presenting the argument that the ecological crisis is a symptom. The disease is in how modern ideas about mankind’s role in the universe have poisoned our relationships with each other and the rest of the living and non-living world. My position is that we do not know our own minds well. We do not know what they are capable of in peak moments of bliss and cognitive clarity, nor do we comprehend how easily they can carry us away on delusional abstractions that have no basis in the reality of our molecular world. We are so in our heads we are at risk of losing touch with our body, the physical reality in which our lives unfold; so into our abstractions of economy and nationalism, status and hierarchy that we are losing touch with our need for clean air, water and soil. To be risking even the slightest chance of the kind of planetary chaos ecologists are warning us about, with the calm demeanor of our existing social discussions is, in my mind, a sure sign of collective psychosis.

Traditions of meditation and waking up are surrounded by a wall of Cosmic Foo Foo so high it is almost impossible to see the point. I am suggesting that most of that is just not relevant to what we are really trying to convey by these types of teachings. What we are trying to say has everything to do with waking up to the reality of your situation as it is in the here and now and as it will potentially become in the future. We have a funny habit of making ourselves slaves to our own ideas about ourselves and our world by forgetting that, as long as we draw breath, we are completely free to remake today in any image we desire. People walk away from lifetimes spent in bad marriages, dogmatic religions and hateful ideologies all the time. One day some insight dawns and they see through some ignorance on their part which had lead them to believe in their own slavery. At that moment they are free and there is no going back because the truth of the insight is always right there in front of them, reflected in the ceaseless unfolding of reality as reality. There is no going back into the cocoon of make-believe.

I am convinced that the same one-way insight comes into the lives of everyone who plumbs the depths of what our ecologists are saying. This ecological insight is already pervasive, like a shadow running through our modern societies, and it is spreading. More and more people, young and old, will be caught and forced (or is that called?) to plumb these dark and depressing depths in their search for the truth. Mindful Ecology recognizes this process as a full blown hero’s descent into the underworld, the first step on the road to enlightenment. It offers both a like-minded community and an encouragement for a serious, daily practice of meditation. It is by developing the skills of meditation that we are able to begin to integrate our head’s knowledge with our heart’s responses to that knowledge. It is my position that we are in crisis due to a disease within our minds and bodies that cuts us off from our ongoing experience of the living earth. It is a disease with a long pedigree in the non-indigenous cultures of the East and West, but one that can be cured within the individual. Mindful Ecology seeks to live once again in a sacred world as our ancestors once did. That is what the world looks like to one who is awake.

Awake. Then we can trust to the wisdom of life itself to show each of us what individual way we must travel to remain on the path of beauty. Then we can trust the womb of emptiness from which all things come forth, instead of placing our trust in the fickle whims of social and religious dogmatisms. We do not need to wait for samsara to suddenly become less insane before stepping into the sacred world.

Our neighbors need to meet shamanistic warriors, yogis and yoginis and others harmonizing their minds with their bodies and their lives with the land. Not many are happy; sharing joy has become a work of great virtue. Not many are fearless; daring to know and yet enjoying life anyway has become a great witness. Not many are free; showing the power to choose kindness in our rude, violence-soaked cultures has become a great liberation. Working to spread the enlightenment of our endarkenment is the great work, the most meaningful of all work, for we hold the elixir of sadness in the compassionate heart that establishes each person in their own place.

Grateful and content we can move among our time as unshakable peacemakers. Grateful because we have conquered our fear and strong emotional resistance to seeing emptiness. Content because we have pushed desire to its end in the cremation ground and learned the true value of a breath. Unshakable because in our hearts we have let sadness take root in compassion and tasted selfless equality. We are peacemakers for we have communed with the bones of our ancestors in the earth, buried the hatchet under the tree feeding on fields of blood, and now carry our ebony flint sharp and our powder dry, ever ready as protectors of the land.

It is an extremely beautiful and fortunate thing to be alive. As human beings we have the opportunity to share the most profound depths of one another, including the awe and wonder of our clear light of being. It is my conviction that each of us embodies a cosmic seed of sorts, that we have cosmic roots, that in a way we have all been here a long, long time even as we are thoroughly and completely mortal. As a Buddhist I believe there are two truths. In the exquisite moment, quick as a finger snap, is all that we dream might some day come true for us in our heart of hearts. To see it we need only set aside the veils of aggression that blind us to the powerful electrical and elemental magic of ordinary life.

Earth Love

“May I be like the earth,
Providing the air, the ground, water,
And everything she provides
That is our sacred source of life.

Inspired by the example of the earth, this prayer encourages us to aspire to be an unconditional source of well-being and life for others. This is a supreme aspiration. We do not just have a great deal to learn about the environment – we also have a lot to learn from it.”
The Heart Is Noble, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa


We say nature is red in tooth and claw and indeed it is; to eat is the means of survival. But reproduction is the engine of evolution and so cooperation and synergy are equally fundamental. So this is no objection to our aspirations for it. It is only with mankind that we find cruelty for cruelty’s sake yet this is no objection to our aspirations for it either, as it is also only with mankind that we find loving kindness and compassion being nurtured for its own sake. With the human being we find a life form capable of aspiring to extend love to all sentient beings – earth love.

I would like to share my aspirations for the world with you. Perhaps you will recognize some of your own deepest longings and hopes in them. Through the magic of sharing a heartfelt connection we will have strengthened one another’s subjectivity, we will have become friends. Making such connections are all the more valuable in our times when it is so hard to swim against the current. I think we should all ask ourselves just what is our own Aspiration for the World.

The subject of hope is a difficult one because it is so easily contaminated with the idea that we need to achieve what we hope for. My earliest teachers used to warn not to “lust after results” and now, decades later, it still rings true. It is natural to want to achieve the outcome we are working on; we read in the hope of becoming better informed, we study in school hoping to earn a certificate or a degree which we hope will keep us off the streets and out of the unemployment line or perhaps we work hard for our employer hoping they will in turn reward us with some security. In all these ways and many, many others we hope for outcomes to accompany our efforts and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It is human nature to act on our hopes and try to make them come to pass. The problems come when we convince ourselves we cannot be happy unless our hopes and dreams come to pass. That gets it all backwards, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Our deepest aspirations form our character, that elusive yet pervasive quality that colors our reactions to the events of our lives. Integrity and honesty are qualities of character which we see expressed when keeping our word or remaining strong yet gentle under pressure. These character traits can bring a type of happiness to our lives that is not as fickle as feel-good emotions or quickly satiated pleasures. As the Stoics taught they are also not dependent on the events of the world we experience; how we choose to react to events remains our choice and in that choice we remain unbounded, free even if we find our bodies in chains.

I would like to live in a society that is wise enough to practice Buddhist Economics. In 1955 E.F. Schumacher coined the term as part of his work with Asian societies and then published an essay with the same name in 1966 which was included in the book Small Is Beautiful in 1973. It is worth mentioning this pedigree for those who might think our problems and their solutions were not clearly seen some time ago. The basic wisdom it had to share is that since human greed is boundless – like drinking salt water the Buddha taught – the highest quality human life is one that is happy and satisfied with the least possible. “From an economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern – amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results… since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.”

This is a nugget of wisdom shared by monks and nuns of every tradition, updated in the Voluntary Simplicity movement, and recently articulated meaningfully in John Michael Greer’s acronym L.E.S.S. – Less Energy, Stuff and Stimulation. A society respecting this wisdom will not be without greed and exploitation but on balance a culture that discourages such behavior, understanding it as a selfish, somewhat sad aberration, will provide fewer sociological niches in which such greed and exploitation can grow and thrive.

Not only would we then walk lighter on the earth but we would also have more time for creative pursuits, nurturing friendships and all the other noble and dignifying activities which are currently so often squeezed out of our oh-so-busy schedules. On a very practical level more people could live with a sense of contentment if the needs of all were met before the endless wants were provided to the few. Cultures of the past organized themselves around these types of values. Knowing this nurtures my aspiration even though I cannot see a way to get there as a society from where we are today.

I aspire to live in a world that appraises the success of a cultural order by how well it treats its weakest members. This might sound crazy in our time of celebrity-worshiping only the winners in our winner-take-all culture, yet it to has formed the social values of cultures in the past. The concern for the downtrodden was once a defining characteristic of Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies and continues to appear here and there in odd places like the Freemason and worker’s unions concern for the widow and orphan. Though helplessly out of fashion today, this hope is nurtured every time I encounter broken lives from broken homes populating our city streets; there must be a better way. It is also nurtured in the countless acts of kindness my city contains everyday. Action taken on behalf of the poor, sick, and the old make no headlines and provide none of the prizes our enculturation teaches us to value, still the acts of compassion and basic human decency are not extinct.

I hope to see that a large majority of people never doubt the dignity and worth of a human life. When Tibetan lamas came to the West they had a very hard time understanding our culture’s sense of self-loathing. I believe this uniquely western psychological trait was created by advertising. I do not think it is part of some ‘inherent, unchangeable human nature.’ To sell us a bill of goods we were sold, as we say, a bill of goods. Though in my opinion the human psyche has been deeply wounded by the psychologically manipulative tricks of the ad men, I think this damage is reversible.

One of my deepest aspirations is to live on an earth in which the industrial killing machine of modern warfare can no longer harvest lives by the millions for The Lord of Death. Nor will death squads be allowed to roam free with their instruments of torture, abuse and terror in jungles, ghettos or Guantanamos. This might seem the most unrealistic hope of all yet I believe it would be the direct result of just one basic, though fundamental change: an increase in our respect for women and children. If, on the balance, the number of rapes and beatings of women and children we as a society are willing to tolerate was minimized, it seems to me the ripple effect would reach all the way to the world’s battlefields and torture chambers.

Finally I aspire to live in a world in which the wisdom of our elderly members is prized highly. Recognizing the endurance involved in achieving old age with dignity intact, and the value of understanding that only experience can bestow, just might provide the stabilizing influence for the whole of the rest of our culture. It is easy to romanticize the Native American tribes debating with their elders in seeking out the best course of action as those that would be most likely to benefit the 7th generation, still the historical example remains. Again, on the balance, it encourages my heart as a realistically better way to live than what I see around me today.

These are the aspirations for  the changes I dream of seeing in our human relationships, the ecology of our social interactions. My conviction is that they reflect a basic respect for the earth, for life just as it is in all of its forms. These changes would represent a healing of the sickness that is causing us to poison our homes, steal an honorable human future from our children and murder whole species among our four-legged, finned and feathered brothers and sisters.

I will not surrender my dreams. Nor will I tuck them safe into an obscure corner of my being and watch everything I hold precious be destroyed. This is my earth love. It is comfortable thinking like a mountain; it has no need to take up gun, knife and chainsaw as its enemies do. We do not need to wake up tomorrow to a world transformed into the one of our dreams to be happy. Everyone of these aspirations can be put into practice in our own individual lives right now. We can act from that place that is courageous enough to admit to ourselves and to others around us that we dare to hold these aspirations. When we do, we discover something that has outlasted empires and civilizations throughout the long history of our earth – we discover the power of an indestructible intention.

I have met literally hundreds and hundreds of people in person and through writings that feel the same way. Each of us would express our deepest aspirations in our own unique way but that does not prevent us from recognizing the same aspirations in one another. Tens of thousands, maybe millions, of people right now are feeling this same throbbing, living heart of earth love. Looking out across our killing fields, heartless businesses, shoddy consumerism values and callous disregard for the preciousness of life, a deep and abiding revulsion arises within. It’s a call.

This indestructibility doesn’t come because we have some sort of super-power. It’s a recognition that the very pulse of life itself provides the spaciousness for such aspirations. Every couple falling in love, every wolf howling at a fresh moon, every dolphin cresting waves for the sheer exuberance of it are each reflecting this earth love, this mystery out of our planet’s deep time.

None of us can stop the seeds we have sewn from sprouting. Things will run their course. None of us is rich enough, smart enough, nor powerful enough to individually turn this ship around. However we individuals are not powerless. Recognizing our indestructible intentions together, it is hard to rationally justify a limit on just how far things might change for the better. It will take time, centuries perhaps. It will never become an angelic utopia and it cannot come about by trying to cut out or deny the darkness that dwells in the heart of each and every one of us. But even all  this taken together, it seems to me, it not sufficiently powerful to overcome the indestructible intention of our earth love.

There are many demons about in the world today but there are also many friends. Thank you, friends, for reading my aspirations for the world. What are yours?


PewTorturePollI think every citizen of the world’s various governments should read the report released last week to the U.S. senate summarizing the use of torture by the CIA in the years 2001 to 2009.

In this Christmas season many millions of Christians worldwide honor their image of deity in the form of a child. Yet Christianity’s iconic image, which shocked the ancient world, is not the stable first constructed by St. Francis of Assisi but the crucifix, that of a man being tortured to death. What Buddha taught was kind of subtle; how the mind makes the world we experience. What Jesus taught was not subtle at all, at all: torture man and you kill god. The corpus on the cross is stating this in as clear of terms as it is possible to get: that which would torture is damned, cut off from the divine. There have been centuries of thought devoted to the theological meaning of the crucifixion but might the most basic message be the most important ?

I have avoided the subject of politics on this blog up to this point and do not anticipate turning to it often from here on out either. Still there are times events touch on aspects of this blog’s project so directly it is worth taking the risk of alienating some readers to explore them. As a lifelong member of Amnesty International I think it is important to use the fact that there is torture going on in the world – right now – as a subject for our contemplations. It is important to recognize just what it is that we are seeking to liberate ourselves and all other sentient beings from. Samsaric ignorance is what we are trying to overcome by our practice of meditation; we are looking for the middle way between extreme views of all kinds. The enlightened mind can only be born in a heart of Bodhichitta, a heart of loving kindness. This shows how twisted the paths have become for those whose karma has lead them to these hallways of horror, how very far lost it is possible to become.

Torture – what the human mind created, it can undo.

To avoid being misunderstood I want to say at the outset that I think it is important everyone on earth becomes aware of this report not to join the bandwagon of the many, many voices heaping scorn and derision on the United States. Just the opposite actually. The form of government in the United States and the track record of its relationship with other countries and peoples is one of the most precious chapters in the history of civilizations. Even if it is only in its rhetoric, it has tried to affirm the rights of the individual above state and religion. This is in stark contrast to those religions that dictate what can be thought to their members and those despots that lord it over their critics with death squads and torture.

I do not think I have a Pollyanna view of the United States and its role in history. Yet it seems to me only ignorance would refuse to agree there is an important difference between its actions in the world and say, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge or the Stalinist purge or the Nazi death camps. Critics of the empire the United States can all too easily lose sight of these vital differences in the rhetoric that would paint the US as the great Satan.

I am of the opinion that the US has acted in horrific ways many times and deserves much of the criticism it currently receives. If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about my country it would be that we would listen carefully to our critics and take their concerns to heart as ways to help us become a better society. Having spent my whole life in the states my experience has been that the people who do “most of the working and paying and living and dying” would give you the shirt off their backs if it was needed. It is for these citizens I recommend a long, sober contemplation of this senate report. All the blowback from our country’s selfishly evil deeds, manipulations of lives and minds, death dealings and lies are coming home to roost. Perhaps it is naïve but I place my hope in the hands of these people because among them I think it is just possible for a mature understanding to develop about our country’s place in the world. Our most probable future is going to be characterized by payback on so many levels; ecological yes but political, economic, social and religious as well. We already see our cities aflame and our coasts flooded. My hope is that the quite majority are willing to accept the discipline of enduring the results of our mistakes with an eye to learning from them. As this century unfolds and the American empire unravels, as I believe it most probably will, there will be an opportunity to return to the political and cultural roots that once made this country a shining light on the hill, a source of hope for millions of the poor and downtrodden the world over.

It is just these considerations that provide the proper context for appreciating just how lost the world-wide modern industrialized societies have become. So how then should people seeking to stay awake respond to such an item as this senate report? First we should recognize that the details in the report are about real human beings who inflicted and suffered these events. Second we should recognize that this is a cyclic event. Every so often the CIA is dragged through the mud in public. The last time was during the 1970s investigations led by Senator Church. We collectively cast our shadow on this whipping boy and feel better when the whole thing quickly disappears down the empire’s memory hole. Nothing is fundamentally changed by the process but our image of ourselves gets a face lift.

What do these despicable actions teach us about the human condition? Acts of barbarism are caused by rigidity of consciences, a result of extreme views. This fixation, lost in concepts without feeling, is ego mind. Mara, the devil. Spinner of illusions and lies. Doesn’t that characterize well what these station chiefs, trainers and army recruits were chasing down these corridors of hell? Here’s why it is so hard for those who have participated in these kinds of things. Sacred world requires seeing the entire world with a type of purity that is born of absolute acceptance. It is hard to accept one’s self in unconditional terms when acts of blasphemy against awareness haunt the conscience. There is no final escape from conscience, the hounds of heaven and all that. They are so sure they are so right… until they are not.

It is taught that it is possible to purify all evil deeds, obscurations and degrading actions but it is remorse and regret that unlocks these powers. Neither individuals nor countries can hide behind weasel words like extrajudicial punishment and enhanced interrogation techniques. That we show no regret and remorse is just a sign of how full blown our psychopathology has become. The psychopath / sociopath are defined by having no regret when regret is the proper response. When it is missing it is due to ignorance, an inability to see there is something to be remorseful about, just as we see in this national spin about the torture we committed a few years ago.

The world created by these mental delusions is known as samsara. Classically it has been likened to a world on fire, a pit of snakes and an island of cannibals. It is not hard to see how these describe the world such unfortunates inhabit: world on fire, a war zone; pit of snakes, everyone’s full of poisons; island of cannibals, what we call dog-eat-dog. It is not surprising that those who live in this mind created world, creating nightmares for themselves and other people also easily create nightmares for the environment. People so caught up in exclusively anthropomorphic concerns can hardly spare a thought for spilling poisons in a river or anything else along those lines.

There are a number of important lessons to draw from this pathetic turn of affairs in foreign affairs, not least is the new note being played; the total lack of remorse. These evil acts are condemned not because they contradict the history of American ideals and centuries of international law but because the techniques did not prove to be effective. This, I suggest, is a frighteningly clear indication of just how far the so-called leader of the free world has lost its bearings. It is hard to think straight about politics in our time. The public square has become dominated by Ph.D.-level psychological spin-doctoring, the internet has created an echo chamber where any nutty idea can find encouragement and the mass media has become almost wholly irrelevant by refusing to take up any of the truly important issues facing our society. It has been said that the American people get the government they deserve and it is true we citizens have become all-together too complacent with our corporate sponsored infantalization. Still this lack of remorse should be capable of penetrating even our hardened, manipulated hearts.

To think straight about modern political philosophy it is important that we recognize the role played by the desire for creating utopia through the enlightenment project that is coming unraveled all around us in our time. The ancient wisdom teaches that this was always destined to be a quixotic attempt since samsara has always been broken and cannot be fixed. To think straight also requires that once we see this clearly we do not swing to the opposite extreme and disregard any and all attempts to seek a better way of being in this world. There are differences between living under the barbarism of the killing fields and not, and these differences matter a great deal.

In some perversion of human experience we have come to expect a life without hardship, to be continually entertained and to never be put upon to do what we do not feel like doing. The fake world of the advertisers is made of images and emotions and it is as if we have shoved our heads into that fantasy land and insisted to all the world that we are living in utopia. Just like the marketing messages are designed to have us react. Meanwhile as our heads are surrounded by sex, violence, anger, yelling, power plays and all the rest of it, the real world our bodies occupy is becoming daily less and less capable of supporting living things and the clash between nations is growing more and more harsh.

All of this serves as a reminder for why we practice. Seeing deeply into samsara provides the fuel. The aspiration remains to relieve those who suffer as expressed in the traditional Buddhist prayer. During practice we recognize our minds classify all sentient beings into three groups. There are those we love and who love us that we hold close to ourselves. There are those we hate and who have harmed us and others that we push as far away from ourselves as we can. Finally there are all those who we neither love nor hate but are simply indifferent to their fate one way or the other. The traditional aspiration works with all three groups. In the traditions that include visualizations we are taught to see the group of enemies as in front of us, that they hold one of the keys to our heart of loving kindness.

Compassion is the way to peace. Recognizing the ignorance involved, the snares of samsara, it is possible to embrace even these darknesses without condemning the species capable of them.