A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Thankful Way

What have I to be thankful for? If you have read me occasionally, you know that my outer life is a struggle. You also know that my inner life is a large construction project, as it is for any Buddhist, and, particularly, one who has taken the Bodhisattva Vow. For with that Vow it is not just the construction of a snug little haven of a house, it is an infinite subdivision of snug little havens for all sentient beings.

So what I am thankful for, first and foremost, is the maturation of the karmic opportunity to take that vow, or perhaps to re-take it, in this life and to get the construction project going. Because I have been indolent for these twenty years and have not accomplished as much as I could of on the subdivision, I am thankful that I have found the "profound skillful means" that my Tibetan teachers have preserved for over a thousand years. For even with my indolence, I have grown steadily in confidence about the clarity, sanity, and effectiveness of walking the Buddhist path.

I said "confidence" and not "faith". I have made this distinction before but I especially want to stress it here. Nothing in Buddhism is to be accepted without questioning. Nothing. This is what is known as "contemplating the Dharma". Everything you are taught is, sooner or later, to be weighed, tested, and experienced directly. There are no mysteries which you must believe in despite your reason and despite your experience. Now, of course, to some degree, there are parts of the Dharma that you must be patient and wait to experience, just as there are parts of middle-age and old age that the young must wait for maturity or dotage to know directly.

These parts of the Dharma you must take on trust. Once again "trust", not "faith". Trust is provisional, faith is absolute. So the next thing to be thankful for is being truly able to extend such trust to things like karma and rebirth, since, as an ordinary person, I can only have direct glimpses of them occasionally.

I trust what my teachers tell me that I can't yet test, because everything they've told me that I can test, has proved to be unfailingly true. They taught me about how my mind works, how anybody's mind works, when you look at it from the vantage point of actually having a mind, rather than the vantage point of trying to look at the activity in someone's else's brain. These two vantage points are not intermeasurable or interchangeable, any more than the sense of sight is interchangeable or intermeasurable with the sense of hearing.

I have tested what they said about how my mind works, by looking at it while it is working, in the process known as meditation. What they have told me has been unfailingly true. My mind does work that way and I can watch it doing so.

My teachers also taught me about the limits of both reason and skepticism. They taught me that reason is only provisional, that when you apply reason to reason itself, thoroughly and consistently, the overstated claims of reason disappear as swiftly as the last snow in Spring.

If you would like the matter put in the terms of European philosophy and intellect, they have taught me that all predication--saying things are some specific "this way" or some specific "that way"--leads to either logical contradiction or infinite regress.

Ludwig Wittgenstein started with "The world is all that is the case." Nagarjuna, the source of the Buddhist philosophical analysis that I've been taught shows unquestionably and finally that nothing whatever can possibly "be the case".

My teachers have taught me, as well, that intellectual skepticism is also only provisional, because after you have obliterated the claim of reason to do what it cannot really do, you still have to deal with doing the dishes. And you cannot accomplish this only with the absolutely true assertion that the dishes are not really there.

The skillful means of Buddhism not only consist of the experiential power of meditation, and the rational power of skeptical Middle Way reasoning, they also have the emotional power of what is called the "fruition". This is best expressed for non-Buddhists in an aphorism:

If someone blesses you, and you think of them as a Buddha, you receive a Buddha's blessing. If you think of them as a Bodhisattva, you receive a Bodhisattva's blessing. And if you think of them as an ordinary person, you receive an ordinary person's blessing.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the world. There is everything wrong with our perception of it. To "become enlightened", to be a "Buddha", merely means to wake up and finally see for yourself that the world actually is perfect. Anyone you meet actually is a Buddha, but they can't see it directly, you can't see it directly, and we all have to deal with everybody's misperception of the matter.

Of course, I haven't done this, I haven't become enlightened. But my teachers have taught me that if you merely think of the world as perfect, and of every being as a buddha, even though you can't directly perceive the ultimate perfection of the world, you clear up an incredible amount of your misperception of things, and you clear it up very, very quickly. It is like using a snowblower instead of shoveling the driveway with a trowel.

By looking at the world that way and following the traditional instructions of my teachers about how to do it, I have unequivocally cleared up a considerable amount of my confusion about all sorts of things. This truly has happened, just like they said. So I trust them when they tell me that I can continue to do this in this life, and in future lives, until I finally do become a Buddha, even though that hasn't happened yet. I can see the process working directly and I can see that, when the process is complete, it is impossible not to be enlightened, and it is impossible not to work to help others to do it too.

And I am very thankful for that. It is the only thing that ultimately has any real value or meaning.

I have good things in my material life, though fewer than formerly. I have opportunities in the world that I can still pursue, though fewer than when young. I have a fair degree of health, though not nearly as much as in the past. And I have life itself, though this unravels with every rotation of the second hand on the clock. I can be thankful for all of these on this day and at this moment.

But I have seen material goods, fancy opportunities, physical and mental health, and life itself either evaporate like a mud puddle, or smash to porcelain shards in an instant. None of them are anything more than the beautiful flower petals which once graced the opening rose, and now are scattered on the grass.

The fact that I have abandoned illusion about the permanence of these things is the greatest gift my teachers have given me. They told me not to put my trust in mere things. I have tested this wisdom and it is unequivocally true.

They also told me where to put my trust, in the Dharma. I did so, and now I hold the Wish Fulfilling Gem.