In supporting people as they make difficult ethical decisions, Buddhism does not offer a set of fixed rules. In the case of medical-related decisions, such rules could be rendered outmoded or meaningless by further technological advances. Rather, it seeks to enable people to develop a deeper and clearer understanding of the nature of their own lives and the lives of others as a basis for such decisions. Specifically, it seeks to help people develop the wisdom and compassion that will enable them to experience a lasting sense of satisfaction and happiness. In this sense, Buddhist “precepts” are best understood as an internalized ethic of compassion that guides us toward becoming active, contributing participants in the creative evolution of the universe.
The Buddhist View of Life
As a philosophy, the starting point for Buddhism in ancient India was the effort by Shakyamuni (Gautama Siddartha) [literally, “the sage of the Shakya clan”] to resolve the question of human suffering, the “four sufferings” of birth, aging, sickness and death. (The inclusion of birth may be unexpected, but Buddhist tradition—confirmed by experience—holds that the transition from the warmth and safety of the womb to the cold outer world is an immensely painful one. Birth also symbolizes the suffering inherent in the very process of living.)
In order to resolve the question of human suffering, Shakyamuni (Gautama Siddartha) engaged in various meditative practices, entering deeply into the inner realms of his own life. There he discovered a consciousness that transcended the purely individual, a layer of consciousness shared by all people. Beyond that, he was able to experience unity with all forms of life. Eventually, the expansion of his inner awareness enabled him to experience oneness with the Earth itself, and with the planets and stars which, like the individual human being, undergo cycles of life and death—forming and coming together, dissolving and ceasing to be. Finally, he was able to experience the dimension of what can be called a universal or cosmic life—the fundamental essence of wisdom and compassion that supports and underlies all existence. All life repeats cycles of birth and death supported by the compassionate functioning of the cosmic life force.
It was his awakening to this that earned Shakyamuni (Gautama Siddartha) the title of “Buddha” or enlightened one. In the language of philosophy, he discovered an inner, immanent truth that is at the same time transcendent and universal. The inner cosmos he discovered could, in other words, also be observed in the world around him; perceiving a universal life of wisdom and compassion within, Shakyamuni (Gautama Siddartha) also recognized it in all people. He saw that all people were as capable as he of awakening to the true nature of their lives. From that time, his actions and teachings were dedicated to the work of awakening all people to the eternal, undefiled nature of their lives. These teachings formed the core and basis for the later development of Buddhism into a philosophical system and a movement of popular empowerment.
attacks in 2008
The goal of Buddhism is happiness. Because Buddhism views all life as interconnected, our efforts to realize happiness for ourselves must include compassionate action for others. Buddhism denies the validity of any form of happiness that is built on the suffering or at the sacrifice of others, including wanton destruction of nature. In the early Buddhist scripture the Dhammapada, we find this passage: “All living beings tremble before violence. All living beings fear death. Placing yourself in the position of these other living beings, you must not kill others, nor must you allow them to kill others.” Protecting life from violence and degradation is a core objective of Buddhism.
The Continuum of Life
Human dignity is a key concern in any discussion of bioethics. It must be given full respect in all stages of life. Being able to concretely sense and experience one’s own dignity, to have that recognized and respected, are crucial aspects of happiness. In Buddhism, the basis of human dignity is our identity with the universal, cosmic life, and our capacity to awaken to the wisdom and compassion inherent in all life. It is the fundamental nature of life to evolve toward self-realization and self-perfection. This remains true even for people with extremely reduced capacities. In this sense, human dignity is essentially independent of such standards as the ability to make rational decisions or to contribute actively to society.
The unity of the individual self with the cosmos means that the physical and mental, the concrete and spiritual dimensions of experience are also a unity. (“Two but not two” is the term used in Buddhism to describe that which is distinct and separate on the phenomenal level but one on a deeper plane.) In the same way, our lives extend to and embrace our surroundings with which we are also “two but not two.” For caregivers, this means that careful and balanced attention must be given to both the physical and spiritual aspects of the human person—one cannot be radically prioritized over the other. It also means that medical practitioners, when treating individuals, are also working with and “treating” the family, friends and community that are an integral part of that individual’s life.
Central to Shakyamuni’s (Gautama Siddartha's) awakening was his grasp of the eternal nature of life. The insights of Buddhism into the experience of birth and death parallel central concerns of bioethics. In Buddhism, individual lives are seen as emerging from the universal, cosmic life (the process of birth) and returning to it in the process of death. Governed by the law of cause and effect, we repeat endless cycles of life and death, each of which is a unique opportunity to create value (happiness) for ourselves and for others.
In terms of the process of birth, Buddhism views parent and child as manifestations of cosmic life who share a profound connection from the past, as well as a shared purpose or mission to be realized in the present and future. In the simplest terms, a child does not belong to or exist as an extension of the parents. Nor, however, is the child the gift or possession of an external absolute agent. In the Buddhist view, the sperm and ovum of the parents provide the environment or opportunity for a third, autonomous life to become manifest, grow and develop its unique potential within the context of the profound bonds of interconnection they share. These bonds are not a cold, biological fact that conflates genetic identity with ownership. They are developed and deepened through the process of care and parenting, and it is against this backdrop that specific reproductive therapies can be considered and often difficult personal choices made.
Dignity in Dying
At the other end of the life continuum, Buddhism views the process of dying as an invaluable opportunity to manifest one’s human dignity fully. Because Buddhism does not view death as an intrinsically negative experience, it does not generally support the use of “heroic” interventions that only prolong the physical existence of a patient. Nor, on the other hand, does it support any intervention that deliberately shortens a person’s life.
As Shakyamuni’s (Gautama Siddartha) experience in meditation would suggest, Buddhism views consciousness as something not limited to such superficial aspects as sensation, perception and rational thought. Rather, it assumes the existence of deep layers of consciousness that are shared by and connect individuals (that are “transpersonal,” to borrow a contemporary expression) and which are ultimately unified with all being.
Just as the process of conception, gestation, birth and subsequent growth can be understood as a continuum of emergence and development from the common sources of universal life, the process of dying can be viewed as the process by which individual consciousness recedes into deeper levels until it fully merges with the cosmic life. This is not marked by abruptly delineated stages, but is a continuum on which “death” can best be understood as the point at which the dying process has become irreversible. Current medical technology is incapable of reviving people who have reached the stage of “brain death,” and my understanding of Buddhism can accept this as the present-day meaning of death.
scriptures, of Buddhism.
This view of death requires that people in the process of dying be treated at all times with respect. Long after they have lost the ability to express themselves, it appears that people continue to hear and otherwise sense their surroundings. And even after the capacity to organize sensations into rational thoughts or impressions has been lost, the deepest levels of consciousness continue to function, directly sensing the love and concern of family members and friends. Some Buddhist texts offer quite specific guidelines for behavior around the dying—to avoid speaking loudly or about subjects that the dying person would find disturbing, for example. Because dying is seen as a process, these texts hold that these guidelines should be observed for some time after the time of “death.”
In this sense, the inner state of the individual is the key to the Buddhist idea of death with dignity. As physical function declines and consciousness recedes toward the point of irreversibility, what kind of resolve and drama are enacted within the inner realm of the individual? How does that person deal with the regrets and satisfactions, a final settlement with all that has been painful and bitter, good and rewarding, in this life? In the ideal Buddhism offers for the final stage of life, wisdom and compassion figure centrally. An ideal death is one in which, supported by others and compassionately engaged with them to the last moments, we are able to sense the bedrock reality of our dignity, and can respond to this life’s gifts with a profound sense of appreciation and gratitude. In this way, we can mark a new and hopeful departure toward the future.
Dr. Yoichi Kawada has a Ph.D. in immunology and is author of several books on Buddhism and medicine. Since 1988 he has been director of the Tokyo-centered Institute of Oriental Philosophy, established by Daisaku Ikeda in 1962 to make Asia’s philosophical heritage accessible to the world.
[Courtesy April 2004 SGI Quarterly]
Why Buddhism and the West Need Each Other: On the Interdependence of Personal and Social Transformation by David Loy
The highest ideal of the Western tradition has been the concern to restructure our societies so that they are more socially just. The most important goal for Buddhism is to awaken and (to use the Zen phrase) realize one’s true nature, which puts an end to dukkha—especially that associated with the delusion of a separate self. Today it has become more obvious that we need both: not just because these ideals complement each other, but also because each project needs the other. The Western (now world- wide) ideal of a social transformation that institutionalizes social justice has achieved much, yet, I argue, is limited because a truly good society cannot be realized without the correlative realization that personal transformation is also necessary. On the other side, the traditional Buddhist emphasis on ending individual dukkha is insufficient in the face of what we now understand about the structural causes of dukkha. This does not mean simply adding a concern for social justice to Buddhist teachings. For example, applying a Buddhist perspective to structural dukkha implies an alternative evaluation of our economic situation. Instead of appealing for distributive justice, this approach focuses on the consequences of individual and institutionalized delusion: the dukkha of a sense of a self that feels separate from others, whose sense of lack consumerism exploits and institutionalizes into economic structures that assume a life (and motivations) of their own.
The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.
Another way to put it: the highest ideal of the Western tradition has been the concern to restructure our societies so that they are more socially just. The most important goal for Buddhism is to awaken and (to use the Zen phrase) realize one’s true nature, which puts an end to dukkha—especially that associated with the delusion of a separate self. To- day it has become more obvious that we need both: not just because these ideals complement each other, but also because each project needs the other.
As far as I have been able to determine, the Western conception of justice largely originates with the Abrahamic traditions, particularly the Hebrew prophets, who fulminated against oppressive rulers for afflicting the poor and powerless. Describing Old Testament prophecy, Walter Kaufmann writes, “no other sacred scripture contains books that speak out against social injustice as eloquently, unequivocally, and sensitively as the books of Moses and some of the prophets” (186). Is there a Buddhist equivalent? The doctrine of karma understands something like justice as an impersonal moral law built into the fabric of the cosmos, but historically karma has functioned differently. Combined with the doctrine of rebirth (a necessary corollary, since evil people sometimes prosper this life) and the belief that each of us is now experiencing the consequences of actions in previous lifetimes, the implication seems to be that we do not need to be concerned about pursuing justice, because sooner or later everyone gets what they deserve. In practice, this has often encouraged passivity and acceptance of one’s situation, rather than a commitment to promote social justice.
Does the Buddhist emphasis on dukkha (suffering in the broad sense) provide a better parallel with the Western conception of justice? Dukkha is arguably Buddhism’s most important concept: according to the Pāli Canon, Sākyamuni Buddha said that what he had to teach was dukkha and how to end it. Historically, Asian Buddhism has focused on individual dukkha and personal karma, a limitation that may have been necessary in autocratic polities that could and sometimes did repress Buddhist institutions. Today, however, the globalization of democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech opens the door to new ways of responding to social and institutional causes of dukkha.
On the other side, the Abrahamic emphasis on justice, in combination with the Greek realization that society can be restructured, has resulted in our modern concern to pursue social justice by reforming political and economic institutions. This has involved, most obviously, various human rights movements (the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, feminism, LGBT liberation, etc.), which have not been an important concern of traditional Asian Buddhism. As valuable as these reforms have been, the limitations of such an institutional approach, by itself, are becoming evident. Even the best possible economic and political system cannot be expected to function well if the people within that system are motivated by greed, aggression, and delusion—the “three fires” or “three poisons” that Buddhism identifies as unwholesome motivations that need to be transformed into their more positive counterparts: generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.
Today, in our globalizing world, the traditional Western focus on social transformation encounters the traditional Buddhist focus on individual awakening. This essay addresses why they need each other in order to actualize their own ideals, and uses the example of our present economic situation to explore some of the implications of this interdependence.
Good vs. Evil
The difference in focus can be traced back to different paradigms. One way to draw the contrast between the Abrahamic and Buddhist traditions is to consider their dissimilar attitudes towards morality. The Abrahamic religions are (the primary) examples of “ethical monotheism” because they emphasize most of all ethical behavior. God’s main way of relating to us, His creatures, is instructing us how to live by giving us moral commandments. To be a good Jew, Christian, or Muslim is to follow His rules. The fundamental axis is good vs. evil: doing what God wants us to do (in which case we will be rewarded) and not doing what He does not want us to do (to avoid punishment). For many, perhaps most, of its adherents, this world is a battleground between God and Sa- tan, and the most important issue is whose side we are on.
Even the origins of human history in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve—which seems to me a myth about the development of self- consciousness—is understood as an act of disobedience against God: we suffer now because of an original sin by our ancestors. Later, God sends a great flood that destroys everyone except those in Noah’s ark, because people are not living in the way that He wants them to. Later, God formalizes His instructions by giving the Decalogue to Moses. Then Jesus (with some help from Paul) adds an emphasis on loving one another; still, this does not abrogate the emphasis on living according to God’s commands, on the importance of our will according with His will.
Although many people no longer believe in an Abrahamic God, the duality between good and evil arguably remains our favorite story, the main theme in most popular novels, films, and television shows (think of James Bond, Star Wars, Harry Potter, not to mention every detective novel and TV crime series). From a Buddhist perspective, however, our preoccupation with that theme is . . . well, both good and evil.
The duality between good and evil is a good example of the problem that often occurs with dualistic thinking—that is, conceptualizing with bipolar opposites such as high and low, big and small, light and dark, etc. Those particular examples are usually innocuous, but some other instances are more problematical because we want one pole and not the other. Yet we cannot have one without the other, because the meaning of each is the opposite of the other. (You do not really know what “high” means unless you know what “low” means.) This is important not only logically but also psychologically. If it is really important for you to live a pure life (however you understand purity), you will inevitably be preoccupied with (avoiding) impurity. That is why Chan master Hui Hai describes true purity of mind as “a state beyond purity and impurity” (in Blofeld 81).
The relationship between good and evil is perhaps the most problematical example of dualistic thinking, because their interdependence means that we do not know what good is until we determine what evil is. Good requires avoiding evil and we feel that we are good when we are struggling against that evil, preferably an evil outside us. This can be exemplified by inquisitions, witchcraft and heresy trials, and, most recently, the War on Terror. What was the difference between Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush? They were not only polar opposites but were mirror images of each other; both were fighting the same Holy War of Good against Evil, each leading the forces of goodness in a struggle against the forces of evil, because that is what the forces of good are supposed to do. Once something has been identified as evil, there is no need to under- stand it or accommodate it, only to destroy it.
The War on Terror illustrates a tragic paradox: historically, one of the main causes of evil has been our attempt to destroy (what we understand as) evil. What was Hitler trying to do? He was trying to eliminate the evil elements that pollute the world: Jews, homosexuals, Roma gypsies, etc. Stalin attempted to do the same with the kulaks, and Mao Zedong with Chinese landlords. Although the struggles of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were apparently “secular” in the sense that they were not motivated by what we normally consider to be religious belief, they were nonetheless identifying with the same basic duality, resulting in incalculable dukkha for many millions of people. (We shall return to the fact that traditional Buddhism explains such dukkha as the consequence of individual karma.)
That is the problematic aspect of the duality between good and evil, but there is also a beneficial side, which brings us back to the Hebrew prophets. Amos castigates those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” and “crush the needy” (2:7, 4:1). Isaiah complains about those “who write oppressive laws, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey” (10:2). Both speak on behalf of God, and both address themselves primarily to rulers who abuse their power. Of course, many more examples could be cited from the Bible: speaking truth to power, the prophets call for social justice for the oppressed, who suffer from what might be called social dukkha.
I am not aware of anything comparable in the history of Buddhism. There may have been a few counterexamples, but if so they did not influence the tradition in the way that the example of the prophets has influenced the West. According to the Pāli Canon, the Buddha was consulted by kings and gave them advice, yet apparently he did not castigate or challenge them. Nor did the sangha do so after he died.
The other source of Western civilization is classical Greece, which discovered the momentous distinction between physis (the natural world) and nomos (social convention). Pre-Axial Age cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Aztecs generally assumed that their social structures were as “natural” (and therefore to be accepted) as the ecosystems they were embedded within. Realizing that human institutions are not pre-determined in the way that nature is—which means that we can restructure our society to make it better—the Greeks created a democracy that, although woefully inadequate by modern criteria, opened the door to new possibilities that modernity has developed.
Bringing together the Hebrew concern for social justice with the Greek realization that society can be restructured has resulted in what seems to me the highest ideal of the West, actualized in revolutions, reform movements, the development and spread of democracy, human rights, etc.—in short, social progress. We are all too aware of the shortcomings of this progress (see next paragraph) but our concern with those shortcomings itself testifies to our social justice principles, which we understand to be universal but are nonetheless historically conditioned and not to be taken for granted.
So, with such lofty ideals, everything is fine now, right? Well, not exactly, and I assume that I do not need to waste much time trying to persuade you of that. Even with the best ideals [what might be called our “collective intentions”], our societies have not become as socially just as most of us would like, and in some ways they are becoming more unjust. An obvious economic example is the gap between rich and poor in the United States, which today is not only obscenely large but is increasing. How shall we understand this disparity between ideal and reality? One obvious reply is that our economic system, as it presently operates, is still unjust because wealthy people and powerful corporations manipulate our political systems for their own self-centered and shortsighted benefit. So we need to keep working for a more equitable economic system, and for a democratic process free of such distortions.
I would not want to challenge that explanation, but is it sufficient? Is the basic difficulty that our economic and political institutions are not structured well enough to avoid such manipulations, or is it also the case that they cannot be structured well enough—in other words, that we cannot rely only on an institutional solution to structural injustice? Can we create a social order so perfect that it will function well regardless of the personal motivations of the people within it, or do we also need to find ways to address those motivations? In short, can the social transformations that our ideals seek be successful without also considering the challenge of personal transformation?
Perhaps we can now understand why so many political revolutions have ended up replacing one gang of thugs with another gang. Suppose, for example, that I am a revolutionary leader who successfully overthrows an oppressive regime. If I have not also worked on my own motivations—my own greed, aggression, and delusion—I will be sorely tempted to take personal advantage of my new situation, I will be inclined to see those who disagree with me as enemies to be eliminated, and (the number one ego problem?) I will be disposed to see the solution to social issues in my superior judgment and the imposition of my will. Unsurprisingly, the results of such motivations are unlikely to bring about a society that is truly just. And of course these distortions are not restricted only to authoritarian rulers. Beginning with the earliest Greek experience, and certainly supported by the contemporary U.S. experience, there is plenty of evidence that democracy does not work very well if it simply becomes a different system for certain individuals and groups to manipulate and exploit—again, usually motivated by the three poisons.
If we can never have a social structure so good that it obviates the need for people to be good (in Buddhist terms, to strive to not be motivated by greed, aggression, and delusion), then our modern emphasis on social transformation—restructuring institutions to make them more just—is necessary but not sufficient. That brings us to the Buddhist focus on personal transformation.
Ignorance vs. Awakening
Of course, moral behavior is also important in Buddhism, most obviously exemplified by the five precepts for laypeople and the hundreds of additional rules prescribed for monastics. But if we view them in an Abrahamic fashion we are liable to miss the main point: since there is no God telling us that we must live this way, they are important because living in accordance with them means that the circumstances and quality of our own lives will naturally improve. They can be understood as exercises in mindfulness, as ways to train ourselves.
The precepts can also be compared to the training wheels on the bicycle of a young child, which eventually can be removed because they are necessary only until the child knows how to ride a bike. In the Brahmajāla Sutta—one of the most important Pāli suttas, in fact the first sutta in the Dīgha Nikāya—the Buddha distinguishes between what he calls “elementary, inferior matters of moral practice” and “other matters, profound, hard to see, hard to understand . . . experienced by the wise” that he has realized (1.27-28). He speaks thus because for Buddhism the fundamental axis is not between good and evil, but between ignorance/delusion and awakening/wisdom. The primary challenge is not ethical but cognitive in the broad sense: becoming more aware. In principle, someone who has awakened to the true nature of the world (including the true nature of oneself) no longer needs to follow an external moral code because he or she naturally wants to behave in a way that does not violate the spirit of the precepts. (If only it worked so well in practice!)
The Buddha emphasized that he taught dukkha (suffering) and how to end it. Did he have in mind only individual dukkha—that resulting from our own thoughts and actions—or did he possibly have a wider social vision that encompassed structural dukkha—the suffering caused by oppressive rulers and unjust institutions? A few scholars such as Trevor Ling (1985) and Nalin Swaris (2011) have argued for the latter, that the Buddha may have intended to start a movement that would transform society, rather than merely establish a monastic order with alternative values to the mainstream. This possibility reminds us not to anachronistically project our enervated contemporary understanding of religion back onto his life and times. Certainly his attitudes toward women and caste were extraordinarily progressive for his day.
Regardless of what Sākyamuni Buddha may or may not have intended, what apparently happened after his parinibbāna is that within a few generations much of the sangha settled down in monasteries and became relatively comfortable. Early Buddhism as an institution came to an accommodation with the state, relying to some extent on the support of kings and emperors, a development that may have been necessary for it to survive. And if you want to be supported by the powers-that-be, you’d better support the powers-that-be. That no Asian Buddhist society was democratic placed limits on what types of dukkha Buddhist teachers could emphasize. The tradition as it developed could not address structural dukkha—for example, the exploitative policies of many rulers—that ultimately could only be resolved by some institutional transformation. On the contrary, the karma-and-rebirth teaching could easily be used, and was used, to legitimate the power of kings and princes, who must be reaping the fruits of their benevolent actions in past lifetimes, and to rationalize the disempowerment of those born poor or disabled, who must also be experiencing the consequences of (unskillful) actions in previous lifetimes.
The result was that Buddhism survived and thrived, spreading throughout most of Asia and developing its extraordinary collection of contemplative practices that can help us transform ourselves. The emphasis, obviously, has been on the spiritual development of the individual. Whether or not that was completely faithful to the ideals of its founder, today globalizing Buddhism finds itself in a new situation. In most locales Buddhists are no longer subject to oppressive polities. We also have a much better understanding of the structural causes of dukkha. This opens the door to expanded possibilities for the tradition, which can now develop more freely the social implications of its basic perspective.
Admittedly, the implications of such a broader understanding of dukkha, and of a broader responsibility for addressing structural dukkha, are quite radical. They imply rethinking some cherished Buddhist teachings, beginning with karma itself. The conventional Buddhist understanding of one’s own karmic stream as individual and discrete is normally taken to mean that I myself am ultimately responsible for what happens to me: it is the result (vipaka) of my earlier (volitional) actions. What terrible personal karma must each of those European Jews have had to have been born into Nazi Germany! What terrible personal karma must the Dalit untouchables have who are oppressed in India today! If we are now dubious about this way of blaming the victim, we may find ourselves on a slippery slope that leads to questioning some other basic principles:
The influence of Axial traditions will continue to decline as it becomes ever more apparent that their resources are incommensurate with the moral challenges of the global problematique. In particular, to the extent that these traditions have stressed cosmological dualism and individual salvation we may say they have encouraged an attitude of indifference toward the integrity of natural and social systems. (Rue 37; emphasis added)
Buddhism is an Axial Age tradition, and both cosmological dualism and individual salvation have been important aspects of its Asian message. Yet in order for Buddhism to remain a living tradition relevant to the challenges we face now, it is necessary to interrogate how those teachings are to be understood today. Does nirvāṇa refer to another reality, or to the śūnya (empty) nature of this world, where nothing has svabhāva (self-existence)? If the latter, does awakening involve escaping saṃsāra— this world of suffering, craving, and ignorance—or experiencing one’s nonduality with it? According to the Heart Sūtra, liberation is not only realizing that form is emptiness (śūnyatā), but that emptiness is form. Insofar as śūnyatā is not something that exists apart from form, all of us are interdependent, part of each other, and therefore responsible to each other. Needless to say, such reflections take us beyond the bounds of this essay; yet such issues are becoming crucial for the fate of contemporary Buddhism in a world very different from the pre-modern cultures of Asia.
Another way to express the interrelationship between the Western ideal of social transformation (social justice that addresses social dukkha) and the Buddhist goal of personal transformation (an awakening that addresses individual dukkha) is in terms of different types of freedom. The emphasis of the modern West has been on individual freedom from oppressive institutions, a prime example being the Bill of Rights appended to the U.S. Constitution. The emphasis of Buddhism (and many other Indian traditions) has been on what might be called psycho-spiritual freedom. Freedom for the self or freedom from the (ego)self? Today we can see more clearly the limitations of each freedom by itself. What have I gained if I am free from external control but I am still at the mercy of my own greed, aggression, and delusions? On the other hand, awakening from the delusion of a separate self will not by itself free me, or all those with whom I remain interdependent in so many ways, from the dukkha perpetuated by an exploitative economic system and an oppressive government. We need to actualize both ideals to be truly free.
The Suffering of Economic Injustice
From the above, one might conclude that contemporary Buddhism simply needs to incorporate a Western concern for social justice. Yet that would overlook the distinctive social consequences of the Buddhist understanding of dukkha. To draw out some of those implications, let us consider our economic situation today.
Until the modern era, economic theory was understood to be part of social philosophy, and in principle (at least) subordinate to religious authority [e.g., Church prohibitions of “usury”]. Today the academic profession of economics is concerned to model itself on the authority of the hard sciences and become a “social science” by discovering the fundamental laws of economic exchange and development, which are objectively true in the way that Newton’s laws of motion are.
What this has meant, in practice, is that such a focus tends to rationalize the kind of system we have today, including the increasing gap between rich and poor. Despite many optimistic new reports about economic recovery—for banks and investors, at least—in the U.S. that disparity is now the greatest it has been since the great depression of the 1930s. We have become familiar with claims that, for example, the wealthiest four hundred families in America now have the same total wealth as the poorest half of Americans—over 150 million people.2 If, however, this is happening in accordance with the basic laws of economic science [which curiously echo pre-Axial understandings of social relations as “natural”], although we may not like this development and may try to limit it in some way, we would still fundamentally need to adapt to big disproportions. In this way such a disparity is “normalized,” with the implication that it should be accepted.
“But it’s not fair!” In opposition to such efforts to justify the present economic order, there are movements that call for social justice—in this case, for distributive justice. Why should the wealthy have so much and the poor so little? It is not difficult to imagine what the Hebrew prophets might say about this situation. For an economic system to be just, its benefits should be distributed much more equitably. And I would not disagree with that. But can the Buddhist emphasis on delusion vs. awakening provide an alternative perspective to supplement such a concern for social justice?
I conclude by offering what I believe to be two implications of Buddhist teachings. One of them focuses on our individual predicament— one’s personal role in our economic system—and the other implication considers the structural or institutional aspect of that system.
What I have to say about our personal economic predicament follows from what is perhaps the most important teaching of the Buddha: the relationship between dukkha and anattā [“not-self” or “nonself”]. Anattā challenges our usual but delusive sense of being a separate self; it is the strange, counterintuitive claim that there is no such self. One way to understand this teaching is that there is a basic problem with the sense of a “me” inside that is separate from other people, and from the rest of the world, outside. In contemporary terms, this sense of self is a psychological and social construction. Although the development of a sense of self seems necessary in order to function in the world, Buddhism emphasizes the dukkha associated with it. Why?
Because the self is a construct, it does not have any svabhāva [“self-existence”], any reality of its own. The sense of self is composed of mostly habitual ways of thinking, feeling, acting, intending, remembering, and so forth; the ways these processes interact is what creates and sustains it. The important point is that such a construct is inevitably shadowed by dukkha. Because all those processes are impermanent and insubstantial, the self is not only ungrounded but is ungroundable and is thus inherently insecure.
One way to express this is to say that the sense of self is usually haunted by a sense of lack: the feeling that something is wrong with me, that something is missing or not quite right about my life. Normally, however, we misunderstand the source of our discomfort, and believe that what we are lacking is something outside ourselves. And this brings us back to our individual economic predicament, because in the “developed” world we often grow up conditioned to understand ourselves as consumers, and to understand the basic problematic of our lives as getting more money in order to acquire more things, because this is what will eventually fill up our sense of lack.
Thus, there is an almost perfect fit between this fundamental sense of lack that unenlightened beings have, according to Buddhism, and our present economic system, which uses advertising and other devices to condition us into believing that the next thing we buy will make us happy—which it never does, at least not for long. In other words, a consumerist economy exploits our sense of lack, and often aggravates it, rather than helping us resolve the root problem. The system generates profits by perpetuating our discontent in a way that leaves us always wanting more.
Such a critique of consumerism is consistent with some recent studies by psychologists, sociologists, and even economists, who have established that once one attains a certain minimum income—enough food and shelter at a pretty basic level—happiness does not increase in step with increasing wealth or consumerism. Rather, the most important determinate of how happy people are seems to be the quality of one’s relationships with other people.3
Notice that this Buddhist perspective does not mention distributive justice or any other type of social justice, nor does it offer an ethical evaluation. The basic problem is delusion rather than injustice or immorality. Yet this approach does not deny the inequities of our economic system, nor is it inconsistent with an Abrahamic ethical critique. Although an alternative viewpoint has been added, the ideal of social justice
remains very important, necessary but not sufficient.
What does this imply about our economic institutions, the structural aspect? The Buddha had little to say about evil per se, but he had a lot to say about the three “roots of evil,” also known as the (previously mentioned) three poisons: greed, aggression, and delusion. When what we do is motivated by any of these three [and they tend to overlap), we create problems for ourselves (and often for others too, of course]. Given the Buddha’s emphasis on cetanā [“volition”] as the most important factor in generating karma, this may be the key to understanding karma: if you want to transform the quality of your life—how you experience other people, and how they relate to you—transform your motivations.
We not only have individual senses of self, we also have collective selves: I am a man not a woman, an American not a Chinese, and so forth. Do the problems with the three poisons apply to collective selves as well? To further complicate the issue, we also have much more powerful institutions than in the time of the Buddha, in which collective selves often assume a life of their own, in the sense that such institutions have their own motivations built into them. Elsewhere I have argued that our present economic system can be understood as institutionalized greed; that our militarism institutionalizes aggression; and that our (corporate) media institutionalize delusion, because their primary focus is profiting from advertising and consumerism, rather than educating or informing us about what is really happening (Loy 2003, 2008).
If greed, aggression and delusion are the main sources of evil, and if today they have been institutionalized in this fashion, you can draw your own conclusions. I finish with a few words on how our economic system promotes structural dukkha by institutionalizing greed.
What is greed? One definition is “never enough.” On the individual level, it is the next thing one buys that will fill up one’s sense of lack. But greed works just as well to describe what happens on an institutional level: corporations are never large enough or profitable enough, the value of their shares is never high enough, our national GDP is never big enough. In fact, we cannot imagine what “big enough” might be. It is built into these systems that they must keep growing, or else they tend to collapse. But why is more always better if it can never be enough?
Consider the stock market, the high temple of the economic process. On the one side are many millions of investors, most of whom are anonymous and unconcerned about the details of the corporations they invest in except for their profitability and its effects on share prices— that is, the return on their investments. In many cases, investors do not know where their money is invested, thanks to mutual funds. Such people are not evil, of course: on the contrary, investment is a highly respectable endeavor, something to do if you have some extra money, and successful investors are highly respected, even idolized (such as Warren Buffet, "the sage of Omaha."
On the other side of the market, however, the desires and expectations of those millions of investors become transformed into an impersonal and unremitting pressure for growth and increased profitability that every CEO must respond to, and preferably in the short run. If a CEO does not maximize profitability, he or she is likely to get into trouble. Consider, for example, the CEO of a large transnational corporation, who one morning suddenly wakes up to the imminent dangers of climate change and wants to do everything he (it is usually a he) can to address this challenge. But if what he tries to do threatens corporate profits, he is likely to lose his job. And if that is true for the CEO, how much more true it is for everyone else further down the corporate hierarchy? Corporations are legally chartered so that their first responsibility is not to their employees or customers, nor to the members of the societies they operate within, nor to the ecosystems of the earth, but to the individuals who own them, who with few exceptions are concerned only about return on investment—a preoccupation, again, that is not only socially acceptable but socially encouraged.
Who is responsible for this situation in which we have a collective fixation on growth? The important point is that the system has attained not only a life of its own but its own cetanā volitions, quite apart from the motivations of the individuals who work for it and who will be replaced if they do not serve that institutional motivation. And all of us participate in this process in one way or another, as workers, consumers, investors, pensioners, and so forth, although with very little if any sense of personal responsibility for the collective result. Any awareness of what is actually happening tends to be diffused in the impersonal anonymity of this economic process. Everyone is just doing their job, playing their role.
In short, any genuine solution to the economic crisis will not simply involve better redistribution of wealth, necessary as that is. We must also find ways to address the personal dukkha built into the delusions of consumerism, and the structural dukkha built into institutions that have attained a life of their own. It has become obvious that what is beneficial for those institutions (in the short run) is very different from what is beneficial for the rest of us and for the biosphere.
The Western (now, worldwide) ideal of a social transformation that institutionalizes social justice has achieved much. Yet, I have argued, it is limited because a truly good society cannot be realized without the correlative realization that personal transformation is also necessary. In the present generation—thanks to globalization, widespread transportation and digital communications—these two world-views, with different but not conflicting ideals, are in conversation with each other. If I am correct, they need each other. Or more precisely, we need both.
This does not mean merely adding a concern for social justice to Buddhist teachings. Applying a Buddhist perspective to structural dukkha implies an alternative evaluation of our economic situation. Instead of appealing for distributive justice, this approach focuses on the consequences of individual and institutionalized delusion: the dukkha of a sense of a self that feels separate from others, whose sense of lack consumerism exploits and institutionalizes into economic structures that assume a life (and motivations) of their own. Although fairness remains important, in terms of equal opportunity and more equitable distribution, the Buddhist emphasis on greed as a motivation—“never enough”— implies that, when institutionalized, greed ends up subverting the purpose of any economic system, which is to promote widespread and sustainable human flourishing.
Here, the traditional Western concern for social justice is complemented by the Buddhist focus on ending dukkha. The role of greed must be addressed not only individually, in our personal lives, but also its structural forms.
Blofeld, John, trans. and ed. The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai on Sudden Illumination. London: Rider, 1969.
Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Knopf, 2007.
421 Journal of Buddhist Ethics
Kaufmann, Walter. Faith of a Heretic. New York: Doubleday, 2000. Ling, Trevor. The Buddha. London: Gower, 1985.
Loy, David R. The Great Awakening. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003. Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Ricard, Matthieu and Daniel Goleman. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007.
Rue, Loyal. Everybody’s Story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Snyder, Gary. Earth House Hold. New York: New Directions, 1969.
Swaris, Nalin. The Buddha's Way to Human Liberation: a socio-historical approach. New Delhi: Navayana, 2011.
Walshe, Maurice. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987.
---Psychological Self vs. No-Self
As a therapist and a meditation teacher, I live a surreal life. At the office I’m helping people to gain greater self-esteem, more positive self-regard, and encouraging them to see themselves as competent, empowered and strong. But when I teach meditation I strongly encourage people to see that the self is an illusion. On the outside it could seem as if I’m working against myself.
It’s the same for a lot of people who meditate. Most meditators accept that no-self is a core truth of reality. But many have also taken intro to psychology classes and have read a lot of self help books that promote healthy acceptance of the self. It is not unusual for people who regularly attend meditation retreats to also do a lot of self-development, such as adult education and travel. Clearly, in meditation circles, it can seem like we are pretty mixed-up about ourselves. It’s as if we have a love-hate relationship with the “self.”
How are we to make sense of this apparent paradox? The self is indeed an illusion, but why care for and cater to it?
The Psychological Self vs. No-Self
The self in Western psychology is viewed as that function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences. It takes raw sense data, memories, and other cognitive functions and turns them into recognizable narratives. It is critical for everything that we do. Without a strong sense of self, we literally could not make sense of anything that happens to us.
What is fascinating is that in the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week.
So far, this should make a lot of sense to both psychologists and meditators. But here is where things get interesting: we all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere. As if the process itself were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair is.
It is this unshakable sense of a solid “me” in the midst of this process that is the “self” that is referred to in the Dharma. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self in and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real, the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me” is not.
To help understand how important this illusion is imagine that another mental process had this same illusion tied to it. Take memory for example. When we experience a memory we know that it isn’t “real” in the sense that it does not have a reality outside or our mental functioning. We know that memories come and go, are subject to change and can be forgotten. But what if every time you remembered something you assumed that the memory itself was “real” in the same way that a table or chair is real. That it was substantial and lasting. Even though you could not literally see or experience the memory with your five senses, you still had the unshakable belief that it was a real and solid thing that is supposed to last. Wouldn’t this be a set-up for frustration? Memories slip and slide out of consciousness and like every other mental function they are subject to dramatic change. If we expected them to never go away and always be there, we would constantly be in distress. This is exactly what is happening with us in terms of the self-process.
While the self-process creates narratives that organize our experiences into something recognizable, the illusion of self is inserted as a main character into all these narratives. We expect the character to be the same all the time, to never change or go away, to be “real.” And yet each moment we are running into a stark reality: the self is not as real as we believe it to be, and it certainly does not last. Over time this sense of solid “me” becomes the most salient feature of all of our experience and our greatest source of anxiety. The fact that we see this constantly changing process as a solid “me” creates endless problems for us because it sets up a never-ending fight between us and reality (and reality never loses).
What is odd is that according to psychology, this sense of a solid self is not an issue. In fact it is not really addressed at all. One part of the psychological literature explains that the self is a cognitive process like any other, and then another part of the literature goes on about protecting and promoting a healthy “self.” The fact that we are taking a process and turning it into a solid thing in our minds is simply not addressed.
In psychology, this point may have been missed because of the bias to study and theorize about pathology rather than health. The illusions and problems inherent in a “normally” functioning mind just don’t get a lot of research lab-time. So most theory in psychology works to get damaged selves back to “normal functioning.” Buddhism on the other hand, starts with the assumption that normal functioning is full of suffering caused by a false sense of self, and works to get people from a state of “normal” to enlightened.
Joining the Psychological Self with No-Self
In the book Transformations of Consciousness Jack Enlger, a psychologist and meditation teacher, attempts to reconcile the eastern and western approaches to self by proposing that these two traditions should be joined in a “spectrum model of self development.” The central idea being that the illusion of a solid self is a necessary developmental step that supports people in their learning and growth, but that once resilient mental health has been attained the direction for further growth lies in the shedding of this illusion.
What is great about this model is that it proposes that you can support someone in building their self-esteem and support another person in seeing through the illusion of self, and you are really doing the same thing: encouraging growth along the spectrum of self development, but from two different points. Further, Engler suggests that movement along the spectrum is a fairly linear process. People must begin with a strong solid self in order to move to the next developmental step of seeing it as an illusion. Engler is famous for boiling this idea down into the phrase: “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”
I see a lot of value in Engler’s model, but given my own experiences I would change it sometwhat. Rather than a linear model where the person goes from developing a self to seeing through the illusion of self, I would propose a dimensional model, where self development and insight develop concurrently. This can be imagined as an x/y axis with self development and insight development as separate axes.
This model makes more sense for a number of reasons. First, people who attain very high levels of insight also tend to be greatly engaged in further self development: travel, education, career changes, relationships, etc. They also tend to make the same mistakes that go with self development that people without insight make (any review of the scandals of meditation teachers should confirm this). This is something that you really wouldn’t expect with the linear model, because self development should stop when you reach that part of the spectrum where you are attaining insight into no-self.
In my personal experience, growth in insight has in no way inhibited or stopped self-development, rather it has made the process more fun and easier to understand. At the core of this dimensional model is an assumption that is somewhat different than Engler’s: seeing through the illusion of self does not make the self disappear. The self remains, it continues on in the lived experience, but it is no longer the center of experience anymore. It is put in its proper perspective, as a simple, natural process of the mind, like any other. The sense that this organizing process is a real permanent “me” diminishes with insight. Even with great insight the natural process of growth and change, of what we would call “self development” continues to unfold, but the self is no longer believed to be “real”, it is simply an experience like any other.
So, while on the surface it can seem like we in the enlightenment traditions are pretty mixed up about the self, the opposite is actually true: we are clear about who we are. That does not stop us from growing, having fun and being human. It simply gives us greater awareness of the process.
Ron Crouch is a therapist and meditation teacher based in Hawaii. He is particularly fascinated by the intersection of western psychology and eastern wisdom, and is working on research projects to better understand what happens in meditation in terms of psychology. Like his teacher, Kenneth Folk, he is open about enlightenment and is not shy about making meditation practical and down-to-earth. Ron is a new father who is currently torturing his young family by learning to play the ukulele. A consummate slacker, his favorite place to meditate is in a hammock on the beach. Ron also teaches meditation.
Website: Aloha Dharma
by Ron Crouch
---Drawing by Trapdoor Studio
Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. To get unhooked we begin by recognizing that moment of unease and learn to relax in that moment.
You're trying to make a point with a coworker or your partner. At one moment her face is open and she's listening, and at the next, her eyes cloud over or her jaw tenses. What is it that you're seeing?
Someone criticizes you. They criticize your work or your appearance or your child. At moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar taste in your mouth, it has a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever.
The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated "attachment," but a more descriptive translation might be "hooked." When shenpa hooks us, we're likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa "that sticky feeling." It's an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That's the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.
Remember the fairy tale in which toads hop out of the princess's mouth whenever she starts to say mean words? That's how being hooked can feel. Yet we don't stop—we can't stop—because we're in the habit of associating whatever we're doing with relief from our own discomfort. This is the shenpa syndrome. The word "attachment" doesn't quite translate what's happening. It's a quality of experience that's not easy to describe but which everyone knows well. Shenpa is usually involuntary and it gets right to the root of why we suffer.
Someone looks at us in a certain way, or we hear a certain song, we smell a certain smell, we walk into a certain room and boom. The feeling has nothing to do with the present, and nevertheless, there it is. When we were practicing recognizing shenpa at Gampo Abbey, we discovered that some of us could feel it even when a particular person simply sat down next to us at the dining table.
Shenpa thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is always changing. We experience this insecurity as a background of slight unease or restlessness. We all want some kind of relief from that unease, so we turn to what we enjoy—food, alcohol, drugs, sex, work or shopping. In moderation what we enjoy might be very delightful. We can appreciate its taste and its presence in our life. But when we empower it with the idea that it will bring us comfort, that it will remove our unease, we get hooked.
So we could also call shenpa "the urge"—the urge to smoke that cigarette, to overeat, to have another drink, to indulge our addiction whatever it is. Sometimes shenpa is so strong that we're willing to die getting this short-term symptomatic relief. The momentum behind the urge is so strong that we never pull out of the habitual pattern of turning to poison for comfort. It doesn't necessarily have to involve a substance; it can be saying mean things, or approaching everything with a critical mind. That's a major hook. Something triggers an old pattern we'd rather not feel, and we tighten up and hook into criticizing or complaining. It gives us a puffed-up satisfaction and a feeling of control that provides short-term relief from uneasiness.
Those of us with strong addictions know that working with habitual patterns begins with the willingness to fully acknowledge our urge, and then the willingness not to act on it. This business of not acting out is called refraining. Traditionally it's called renunciation. What we renounce or refrain from isn't food, sex, work or relationships per se. We renounce and refrain from the shenpa. When we talk about refraining from the shenpa, we're not talking about trying to cast it out; we're talking about trying to see the shenpa clearly and experiencing it. If we can see shenpa just as we're starting to close down, when we feel the tightening, there's the possibility of catching the urge to do the habitual thing, and not doing it.
Without meditation practice, this is almost impossible to do. Generally speaking, we don't catch the tightening until we've indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. And unless we equate refraining with loving-kindness and friendliness towards ourselves, refraining feels like putting on a straitjacket. We struggle against it. The Tibetan word for renunciation is shenlok, which means turning shenpa upside-down, shaking it up. When we feel the tightening, somehow we have to know how to open up the space without getting hooked into our habitual pattern.
In practicing with shenpa, first we try to recognize it. The best place to do this is on the meditation cushion. Sitting practice teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully, and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to come back to the present moment. We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of shenpa. We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives. This is how we weaken the patterns that keep us hooked into discomfort that we mistake as comfort. We label the spinoff "thinking" and return to the present moment. Yet even in meditation, we experience shenpa.
Let's say, for example, that in meditation you felt settled and open. Thoughts came and went, but they didn't hook you. They were like clouds in the sky that dissolved when you acknowledged them. You were able to return to the moment without a sense of struggle. Afterwards, you're hooked on that very pleasant experience: "I did it right, I got it right. That's how it should always be, that's the model." Getting caught like that builds arrogance, and conversely it builds poverty, because your next session is nothing like that. In fact, your "bad" session is even worse now because you're hooked on the "good" one. You sat there and you were discursive: you were obsessing about something at home, at work. You worried and you fretted; you got caught up in fear or anger. At the end of the session, you feel discouraged—it was "bad," and there's only you to blame.
Is there something inherently wrong or right with either meditation experience? Only the shenpa. The shenpa we feel toward "good" meditation hooks us into how it's "supposed" to be, and that sets us up for shenpa towards how it's not "supposed" to be. Yet the meditation is just what it is. We get caught in our idea of it: that's the shenpa. That stickiness is the root shenpa. We call it ego-clinging or self-absorption. When we're hooked on the idea of good experience, self-absorption gets stronger; when we're hooked on the idea of bad experience, self-absorption gets stronger. This is why we, as practitioners, are taught not to judge ourselves, not to get caught in good or bad.
What we really need to do is address things just as they are. Learning to recognize shenpa teaches us the meaning of not being attached to this world. Not being attached has nothing to do with this world. It has to do with shenpa—being hooked by what we associate with comfort. All we're trying to do is not to feel our uneasiness. But when we do this we never get to the root of practice. The root is experiencing the itch as well as the urge to scratch, and then not acting it out.
If we're willing to practice this way over time, prajna begins to kick in. Prajna is clear seeing. It's our innate intelligence, our wisdom. With prajna, we begin to see the whole chain reaction clearly. As we practice, this wisdom becomes a stronger force than shenpa. That in itself has the power to stop the chain reaction.
Prajna isn't ego-involved. It's wisdom found in basic goodness, openness, equanimity—which cuts through self-absorption. With prajna we can see what will open up space. Habituation, which is ego-based, is just the opposite—a compulsion to fill up space in our own particular style. Some of us close space by hammering our point through; others do it by trying to smooth the waters.
We're taught that whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization. That's the basic view. But how do we see whatever arises as the essence of realization when the fact of the matter is, we have work to do? The key is to look into shenpa. The work we have to do is about coming to know that we're tensing or hooked or "all worked up." That's the essence of realization. The earlier we catch it, the easier shenpa is to work with, but even catching it when we're already all worked up is good. Sometimes we have to go through the whole cycle even though we see what we're doing. The urge is so strong, the hook so sharp, the habitual pattern so sticky, that there are times when we can't do anything about it.
There is something we can do after the fact, however. We can go sit on the meditation cushion and re-run the story. Maybe we start with remembering the all-worked-up feeling and get in touch with that. We look clearly at the shenpa in retrospect; this is very helpful. It's also helpful to see shenpa arising in little ways, where the hook is not so sharp.
Buddhists are talking about shenpa when they say, "Don't get caught in the content: observe the underlying quality—the clinging, the desire, the attachment." Sitting meditation teaches us how to see that tangent before we go off on it. It basically comes down to the instruction, "label it thinking." To train in this on the cushion, where it's relatively easy and pleasant to do, is how we can prepare ourselves to stay when we get all worked up.
Then we can train in seeing shenpa wherever we are. Say something to another person and maybe you'll feel that tensing. Rather than get caught in a story line about how right you are or how wrong you are, take it as an opportunity to be present with the hooked quality. Use it as an opportunity to stay with the tightness without acting upon it. Let that training be your base.
You can also practice recognizing shenpa out in nature. Practice sitting still and catching the moment when you close down. Or practice in a crowd, watching one person at a time. When you're silent, what hooks you is mental dialogue. You talk to yourself about badness or goodness: me-bad or they-bad, this-right or that-wrong. Just to see this is a practice. You'll be intrigued by how you'll involuntarily shut down and get hooked, one way or another. Just keep labeling those thoughts and come back to the immediacy of the feeling. That's how not to follow the chain reaction.
Once we're aware of shenpa, we begin to notice it in other people. We see them shutting down. We see that they've been hooked and that nothing is going to get through to them now. At that moment we have prajna. That basic intelligence comes through when we're not caught up in escaping from our own unease. With prajna we can see what's happening with others; we can see when they've been hooked. Then we can give the situation some space. One way to do that is by opening up the space on the spot, through meditation. Be quiet and place your mind on your breath. Hold your mind in place with great openness and curiosity toward the other person. Asking a question is another way of creating space around that sticky feeling. So is postponing your discussion to another time.
At the abbey, we're very fortunate that everybody is excited about working with shenpa. So many words I've tried using become ammunition that people use against themselves. But we feel some kind of gladness about working with shenpa, perhaps because the word is unfamiliar. We can acknowledge what's happening with clear seeing, without aiming it at ourselves. Since no one particularly likes to have his shenpa pointed out, people at the Abbey make deals like, "When you see me getting hooked, just pull your earlobe, and if I see you getting hooked, I'll do the same. Or if you see it in yourself, and I'm not picking up on it, at least give some little sign that maybe this isn't the time to continue this discussion." This is how we help each other cultivate prajna, clear seeing.
We could think of this whole process in terms of four R’s:recognizing the shenpa, refraining from scratching, relaxing into the underlying urge to scratch and then resolving to continue to interrupt our habitual patterns like this for the rest of our lives. What do you do when you don't do the habitual thing? You're left with your urge. That's how you become more in touch with the craving and the wanting to move away. You learn to relax with it. Then you resolve to keep practicing this way.
Working with shenpa softens us up. Once we see how we get hooked and how we get swept along by the momentum, there's no way to be arrogant. The trick is to keep seeing. Don't let the softening and humility turn into self-denigration. That's just another hook. Because we've been strengthening the whole habituated situation for a long, long time, we can't expect to undo it overnight. It's not a one-shot deal. It takes loving-kindness to recognize; it takes practice to refrain; it takes willingness to relax; it takes determination to keep training this way. It helps to remember that we may experience two billion kinds of itches and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but there is really only one root shenpa—ego-clinging. We experience it as tightening and self-absorption. It has degrees of intensity. The branch shenpas are all our different styles of scratching that itch.
I recently saw a cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook. One fish is saying to the other, "The secret is non-attachment." That's a shenpa cartoon: the secret is—don't bite that hook. If we can catch ourselves at that place where the urge to bite is strong, we can at least get a bigger perspective on what's happening. As we practice this way, we gain confidence in our own wisdom. It begins to guide us toward the fundamental aspect of our being—spaciousness, warmth and spontaneity.
Pema Chödrön is a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, and Comfortable With Uncertainty, published by Shambhala Publications.