The Thicket of Views

Today I was looking for the a podcast on Buddhism that I had listen to when I first moved to Zion over a year go. The title that I had stuck in my head was “Buddhism Before Buddhism” but my first Google search didn’t return anything useful… don’t you just hate that?

After doing some more advanced searching I found what I was looking for: The Book of Eights by Gil Fronsdal. This is Zencast #321 and it is very good, I would encourage you to listen to it. One thing I learned from this dharma talk is how the Buddha warned against quarreling and thinking one’s own religious views are the “truest” or the best.

Indeed this so-called “Book of Eights” is among the oldest sutras known to exist and represents the earliest teaching of Siddhārtha Gautama. It really is Buddhism before Buddhism… that is to say, this book lays down the raw ideas and unrefined teaching of the Awakened One before they became crystallized into the the formal tradition we now call Buddhism. It is much like hearing Jesus give his “Sermon on the Mount” rather going to church and having a pastor give his views about Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church.

Any way, I when looking for this “Book of Eights” hoping it had been translated into English (which it hasn’t been yet). I did another search for ‘Gil Fronsdal’ and stumbled on to a Tumblr post critical of things Gil may (or may not) have said while giving a talk called “Remembering 9-11: Choosing A Compassionate Response.” Here is a quote from that blog:

I listened to this Dharma talk by Gil Fronsdal. In the discussion that followed, Fronsdal, an excellent Buddhist teacher, unwittingly showed that an awakened heart does not necessarily lead to political understanding.

When someone mentioned the U.S.’s penchant for oppressing and exploiting other nations, Fronsdal responded with the “well, everybody else does it too” defense. He then praised Americans for their spirit of volunteerism, saying that the support they give to non-profit organizations is unequaled in any other nation.

That’s because other nations have social systems that take care of their citizens’ needs rather than leaving it up to individual generosity. Fronsdal’s view perfectly represents the American social pathology, an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo – missing the point that, while it is admirable that citizens volunteer to help other citizens, it is vile that they have to. His is the standard liberal view that praises kind treatment of slaves rather than condemning slavery.

Unquestioning acceptance of the status quo? That seem like a strange criticism of a Buddhist teacher, after all one might have said the same thing of Buddha himself… and they would have been just as wrong. After all, isn’t the point of Buddhist practice to accept those realities we can not change and focus on changing ourselves?  I think this person is setting up a “straw man” in their own mind to argue with, something we all do from time to time, but the point of Buddhist practice to to do this less and less.

Reading the quote from Tumblr, it was the use of the term “liberal” that got my attention. “His is the standard liberal view that praises kind treatment of slaves rather than condemning slavery.” Wait in minute, is this some radical leftist being critical of a liberal? That’s kind of funny…. but to level an attack on a Buddhist teacher who was speaking on the topic of compassion, that seems a little much. As if that were not enough, this dharma talk was given on the tenth anniversary of 9-11. This makes me wonder where this critic is really coming from. Does this person actually harbor so-mush resentment against the “status quo” that he agrees with the motives (if not the actions) taken by terrorists on that fateful day? At the very least his anger seems misdirected and I would add this resentment was invented inside his own mind–a pure delusion.

I’m as critical at the next guy of so-called liberals (or anyone who takes an authoritarian position and speaks of “American exceptionism”  etc.) but the view being expressed here sounds even more authoritarian–more extremist than the most extreme liberal that I know. He says, “while it is admirable that citizens volunteer to help other citizens, it is vile that they have to. ” Really? I am left to assume this person thinks that in the ideal world we’d have government provide for everyone needs and that until this utopia comes into being, our duty is to speak out against the “vile” enslavement of humanity and actively oppose the “status quo.” That is an individual opinion, but is it fair to demand others share that view?

Buddha spoke of danger of delusion. Well folks, there is a prime example of it. Perhaps humanity is enslaved to gang of criminals capitalist, that could be, but thinking it is the duty of others to change that system is a delusion. I agree Chris Hedges who his book Empire of Illusion said at this point in history it is impossible to bridge the divide between “a literate, marginalized minority and those who have been consumed by an illiterate mass culture.” Damon Vrabel said, “Change is not possible through journalism, the media, or online debates,” here is more of what he has written in the save vain:

IF we participate in the system, I’m not opposed to it at all. How could I be? I’d be a tyrant if I wanted to force hundreds of millions of people to change their behavior. And the fact is, that “IF” was answered long ago. We Americans have chosen the material benefits of being managed by the financial system for generations. We like demand-side freedom, i.e. choosing between Coke and Pepsi, but don’t want supply-side freedom. We like the supply-side to be taken care of for us. We love the benefits that come from it being imperially run—the credit card always works, the gas station is always open, our water faucets and light switches do what they’re supposed to do, the markets keep going up (oops…maybe not). All of our economic needs are outsourced to others, so we have the luxury of spending our time pursuing wants. And if these types of benefits are good for us, they’re good for the rest of the world. We have no moral authority to stand opposed just because we’re now going to lose our privileged position—a rather childlike perspective.

In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, the Buddha cautions Vacchagotta, the wanderer, against adhering to the “thicket of views,” i.e., forming an opinion one way or the other about a variety of metaphysical topics (Is the cosmos eternal or infinite? Are materiality and consciousness the same or different? Do Buddhas still exist after death?) The Buddha tells Vachagotta that any position one can take: “is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering…. and does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening…”

The same goes for political views.

Anyone can have opinions. They come cheap. I have a million myself — If you want one just ask, and I will tell you. It’s amazing how much I know (that’s a joke). How’s President Obama doing? Is there a conspiracy to create a New World Order? Are we heading into a fascist police state? Is the money system of the United States unconstitutional?  Should we elect Oath Keepers as sheriff and take back our Republic from the bottom-up? Don’t get me started =)

It’s fun to have opinions — they keep the conversation lively. In any case, it’s impossible not to form them. The question is whether it’s possible not to be overly attached to them. Our views (religious, political, or otherwise) can lead to quarreling, disharmony, and anguish. The sage advice of the Buddha was to drop our opinions and let go of our views, in this way we avoid those quarrels which lead us to suffer and cause others to suffer with us. The main point that Buddha was making is this: all our suffering is self-inflicted pain. When we express a strong view on a debatable topic it is  like holding a hot coal in our hand, it is best to drop it before we get burned.

Zen Master Seung Sahn wrote a book entitled Open Mouth Already a Mistake, and was famous for admonishing students to “only keep ‘Don’t-Know’ mind.” In a similar vein, Larry Rosenberg reported seeing a bumper sticker years ago which read: “Don’t believe everything you think,” and thought it offered sage advice. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s “Beginner’s Mind” is the touchstone of American Dharma, but admonitions to take opinions lightly have been part of practice forever. Bankei (1622-1693) advised us not to “side with ourselves,” just as the Buddha himself warned millennia ago of “the thicket of views.”

The truth is, all of our interesting and colorful opinions seem to have very little to do with the progress we make, or fail to make, in our practice. If anything, they separate us from the clear, still place we aspire to. Our practice is best when we have little or no concern for what others do or think — and even or especially what we ourselves think — and pay attention, instead, to how we unfold in our own unique dance with the present moment. Guilt from the past, and fear of the future is what takes away the joy of now. This is why students of Zen focus on their breathing… it puts them in touch with the higher-self, and help them rise above the story-telling ego chatter in their heads… it helps them rise above ego-driven opinions and views to find inner peace and joy.

Yes, we may hold strong views, I certainly do… but I’ve learned it help to be reminded that we don’t know what we don’t know… all our opinions are based on limited information. As we gather more information our views will inevitability change. Think about it, do you hold the same views today that you did 10 years ago? How about those opinions you were clinging to so strongly a year ago? Are they still there today? If you met your older self on the street, would that less informed version of yourself quarrel with you? If so, would it be out of ignorance? And what it say your not still misinformed to this day? We don’t know what we don’t know. This is true of everyone, so while we should compassion to ourselves for not knowing everything, we should give that same consideration to others.

Okay, that is my opinion for the day.


One thought on “The Thicket of Views

  1. More thoughts on this subject…

    Regardless of whether you are a Christian, Buddhist or atheist or whatever… we ought to leave no belief unexamined, we ought to question the status quo, but that doesn’t mean that doing so prohibits us from accepting it.

    Let me explain what I mean…

    We can accept the reality of evil, without condoning it, without enabling it, and without empowering it. Indeed, this kind of “acceptance” is more akin to ignoring it. And in my life time I have learned there are times when we must ignore evil people and allow life to deal with them in due course. People with a zealous nature find this hard to do, here is an example of one conservative Christian who argues aggressively the other direction:

    “…The mistaken idea that tolerance is always a virtue and intolerance always a vice is corrupting the very heart of our society. In the name of tolerance every evil is exalted and proudly defended, while all those who resist and condemn evil are smeared and demonized as hate mongers and bigots. Yet what are such smear tactics other than intolerance and bigotry on the part of those who claim to be tolerant? Like all who are self-righteous, the dogmatic zealots of tolerance often reveal themselves to be extremely intolerant of anything they disapprove of, yet they refuse to see any fault in themselves.”

    Okay, I get that, but it all has to do with your circle of influence doesn’t it. I mean if you view your church as your family, then act accordingly. If you’re a single unattached atheist then being intolerant of “sin” in others takes on a different tone and how you express your own morality changes some what, does it not?

    As I read that quote, it is funny, because I am reminded of having experienced the exact opposite. During my time in a high-demand Bible-based group we were taught to be intolerant of sin in our fellow church member. When I become intolerant of this intolerance, claiming it was being practiced without love, I was asked to leave. So what ought we to learn from all this? I think the lesson is simple: deal with your own sin, and let the example of your life be a witness to what is right. We must be responsibility for ourselves and our family, but accepting the evil in the world is not unlike accepting the sun rise.

    If we make peace our primary objective, as the Buddhist do, then expressing our views will become very disruptive of our primary aim. On the other hand, we ought to find our guide within ourselves. It isn’t wrong to have a moral conviction, but expressing that view in such a way as to expect others to convert to our way of thinking only leads to conflict. I’m not saying this ought be avoided at all cost, I’m saying we ought to choose our battles wisely and respect others right to be wrong. Love demand we care of others as we care for ourselves, and when we do that, we will always find peace.

    There is evil in the world, that is no mystery. The mystery is that there is good in the world. Our responsibly is to bring that good into being, that means we change the world by changing ourselves. When we lose sight of this, we take on a burden that is not ours to carry. In other words, to experience peace, we must learn to practice peace. Battle evil when you must, but don’t think in doing so you will save the world–but may save your soul. Peace without slavery demands we oppose evil but it does not mean we can transform hell into heaven. Make no mistake about it, this world is a hell. Rather than attempt to reform such an evil system, we should detach ourselves from the evil altogether–just let it go–because what we resist only grows stronger. Governments may restrict your liberty, steal your labor, and kill your body but all that matter not. Real freedom is found where Jesus said the Kingdom of God resides–within you.

    I think the Buddha would agree, and his practical advice was simple this: learn to let go of those views and opinion which you cling to for validation and self-worth. They only keep you trapped in a cycle of seeking the peace and joy that is already available to you in the present moment. We live in a time based illusion, dropping our ideas, beliefs, and opinions is as difficult as sitting down to meditate for 20 minutes every day–most people find they can’t do it. That doesn’t mean it is impossible, it just means you are still clinging to this corrupt and evil world–hoping you can change it rather then yourself. They answer to all this is as simple as it is difficult, it means letting go of this time based illusion and accepting the peace and joy that is already inside of you.

    When you put Jesus teaching and Buddhas teaching together, they would both agree with the disciple who says, “I love you, and I love me. And this is all I care to see.”

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