Friday 2016-10-21

Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron

I thought I had a reasonable apprehension of Buddhism, however after reading this, I'm not so sure anymore.

Buddhism's core insight -- I thought -- was that you drop your attachments so you can see the world clearly and do the right thing. However, as the pages of this book go by, I find myself repeatedly starting on solid Buddhist ground, and then ending somewhere in the land of the broken. For example:

Be fully present. Feel your heart. And engage the next moment without an agenda.

We start with "Be fully present" which seems like essential canon, and end with "without an agenda" which is wrong because every Buddhist has the agenda of doing the right thing. Perhaps "agenda" is used in the pejorative sense, but then that goes against the equanimity we intentionally cultivate.

Similarly, the following parable seems Buddha-correct in her discovery of her fundamental all-rightness.

Recently I met a woman who had unexpectedly inherited five hundred thousand dollars. She was understandably ecstatic. She invested it and gleefully watched it grow, until the stock market crashed and she lost it all as suddenly as she had gained it. After two months of deep depression (she said she was almost catatonic and couldnt eat or sleep), she had a revelation. It dawned on her that financially, she had been reasonably comfortable all along. She was fine before she hit the jackpot, and she was equally fine now that her newfound fortune was lost. It was her discovery of fundamental all-rightness, untouched by gain and loss, that she was overjoyed to report.

However, investing as she did does not seem correct; it's better to invest wisely and use the income generated to feed and help those in need for years to come. She has learned something about equanimity, and nothing about trying to see the world clearly so that she can act with compassion.

Finally, we find an old and very broken chestnut:

But when it comes to the commitment to take care of one another, breaking the vow is not so straightforward. There is a traditional Buddhist tale that illustrates this point. A sea captain known as Captain Courage was piloting a ship carrying five hundred men when a pirate boarded the boat and threatened to kill them all. The captain realized that if the pirate carried out his plan, he would not only kill all the passengers but also sow the seeds of his own intense suffering. So, out of compassion for the pirate as well as to save the five hundred men, the captain killed the pirate. In killing one to save many, Captain Courage was willing to take the consequences of his actions, whatever they might be, in order to prevent the suffering of others. This is why the second commitment requires bravery—the bravery to do whatever we think will bring the greatest benefit, the bravery to face the fact that we never know for sure what will really benefit and what, in fact, will only make matters worse.

There was no need to kill the pirate -- just incapacitate him. Perhaps this pirate would go on to live a truly wondrous life? The calm and self-less monk trains so they can act exactly as is needed.

So now I put down my pen.