Monday, August 17, 2015

Dialectic, not Dualistic

My first date with my partner was over coffee, discussing the relative virtues of Buddhism. Apparently she'd practiced with a Rinzai group a number of years previous, and was fine until the stick came out. Getting thwacked on the trapezius was not her idea of a spiritual practice. It's not for everyone. But as she's a therapist the discussion eventually turned to the type of therapy she practiced: Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT. Since I'm not a therapist, and hadn't even heard of this before, I listened in rapt attention. (Since it was a first date, I probably would have been rapt if we'd talked about the weather).

I immediately heard things about that therapy that sounded, Buddhist-y to me. We go on further, and the discussion turns into one regarding Mindfulness, 1/8th of the Eightfold Path. Turns out the woman who devised DBT had some Buddhist training, and was using some of that in this therapy method. Of course, other than the Mindfulness part, what jumped out was also the “Dialectic.” To put it succinctly, that refers to two things constituting “and” not “or.” It’s a non-dualistic way of seeing events, thoughts, feelings, actions, and so on, as a whole rather than opposing separate elements. A very non-therapist way of putting the dialectic might be, “I don't like this! And I can get through it, it will pass.” My apologies to the therapist community for such a lame explanation, but in general it's a way to develop coping mechanisms to address the distress that life brings.

The Buddha identified it: “dukkha.” He said it has a cause, that it can end, and following the Eightfold Path is the way toward that. Of course we Mahayana Buddhists chant, “No suffering, no origination, no stopping, and no path,” but rather that that being a contradictory, dualistic view, it's the dialectic view that one might find the Buddha saying in the Diamond Sutra: “All suffering is no-suffering, thus it is called suffering.” And there a lot of things we face every day that will fall into the category of suffering, or as I like to put it, “struggle,” or “distress.” (Suffering seems to have a more extreme connotation, where some might misdiagnose their dukkha because “it's uncomfortable, but it's not bad enough to be called suffering”). But even if it's no-suffering, no-struggle, no-distress, when you feels it, it can sure seem real enough, even if intellectually you know it isn't.

There are certainly enough issues we either face or ignore every day that could actually qualify as legitimate “suffering” though. Sometimes, the “facing,” might just take on the nature of an earnest discussion by a couple of erudite would-be philosophers, discussing the travails of mankind over cups of espresso while smoking Gaulaoises. If the action stops there, from a karmic standpoint, the action that comes from it immediately will most likely be bad breath. Eventually, however, that action may lead to an actual active action.

I've always admired idealists. Utopian idealists are sometimes needed to get the pendulum swinging in the direction of the ideal. Were it not for the quixotic windmill-tilters, there could be even more injustice than there still is. The US might still be bombing “those North Vietnamese godless commies into the stone age,” if it hadn't been for some who took to the streets and college campuses and tilted at the windmill of the US government, and eventually turned public opinion, however grudgingly, against supporting that war. Richard Nixon was the president who signed the Environmental Protection Agency into existence. I'm guessing the Earth Day environmentalists might have had something to do with that.

Thich Nhat Hanh is often credited with bringing forth the idea of “Engaged Buddhism.” I also seem to remember him saying something to the effect of, “Is there any other kind?” Writing as a Buddhist, but not exclusive as a Buddhist, and not exclusively to Buddhists, it seems as we have an opportunity to become “engaged humans,” some of whom may identify as Buddhists. I think we can all agree on the general statement that there are problems in the world today, regardless of how we identify ourselves. We may not agree on what they are, or what to do about them, but if we look at the struggles, figure out what the cause is, have faith that the struggle can be conquered, and then devise a plan to do the conquering, then perhaps  there's a chance.

The Bodhisattva vow says we'll save all beings, not just the ones whose skin is the same color as mine, not just the ones who speak the same language as me, not just the ones who can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” There are plenty of people around who don't have, and can't afford, bootstraps. I can choose divisiveness; I can choose inclusiveness. I'm also not one of those who thinks inaction is a wise and wholesome course of action. All beings may be no-beings, but that's no excuse to overlook reality as it is right here, right now, from moment-to-moment-to-moment. Someone is hungry, feed him, not just tell him to read a book on sandwich making, or tape a picture of a sandwich to him, or tell him that his hunger “is made by thinking, that it isn't real.” The Avatamsaka Sutra will not fill his belly. And I suspect the Buddha might lose his peaceful, calm equanimity if we had a sandwich and didn't hand it over.

We may not be able to change the world, but we may be able to effect a change on some portion of it. So far as I'm concerned, a dialectic approach rather than a dualistic approach would be a start. We can see poverty as a problem. We can see it as a problem, and that there is a solution. We can see a problem, then dualistically deny there is a problem. We can see a problem, and blame those “_____” for creating their own problem. We can be democrats or republicans; we can be democrats and republicans.

I'm not one of the “end-of-the-world” types who think that it's never been worse than it is today. My gut tells me (if not statistics) that the struggles change, but the struggling has gone on for quite some time. I expect that will be the case in the future as well. My experience is that in order for things to change radically, things first have to get really bad, then even worse before anyone will admit to there being a problem. California and its water supply might be one of those issues that actually brings radical change, with contributions from all, not just one self-identified group or another. That of course assumes that they all drink water.

The following excerpt was sent to me by Julio Robles, who happens to be a Mexican national and lives in Japan. I'm neither of those, if you want to put walls up between us. But he has helped me, and I hope I've helped him, even though we're 10,000 miles apart. See if anything in the piece he sent me sounds familiar:

We live in a country where the common people in general are sacrificed for the fame, peerage, and medals of one small group of people. It is a society in which the common people in general must suffer for the sake of a small number of speculators. Are not the poor treated like animals at the hands of the wealthy? There are people who cry out in hunger; there are women who sell their honor out of poverty; there are children who are soaked by the rain. Rich people and government officials find pleasure in treating them like toys, oppressing them and engaging them in hard labor.… However, the Buddha continually calls to us: “I shall protect you, I shall save you, I shall help you.”

 “My Socialism” by Takagi Kenmyō (Japanese, 1864–1914)

Takagi was one of those idealists who was executed on charges that have since been proven to be false. Deep bows to him, and all those who aren't afraid to tilt at a windmill or two for the sake of all sentient beings.

For the Dharma talk, click the title, or go to