Sunday, June 12, 2016

Right speech means speaking up

On the Buddha's Eightfold Path, right speech is followed by right action. So it's no surprise that hate-filled speech is followed by hateful action. If words are used to demonize people, if laws are proposed to separate them out, to enforce their otherness, it follows -- like the cart follows the horse -- that action will take place.

That seems so clear to me in light of the shootings in Orlando, Florida, in which a gunman killed 50 people and wounded 53 more. Hate leads to more hate, not less.  

That's why it's important, especially now, to look at speech, at the charge it carries, the groundwork it lays, and to consider whether we are speaking wisely. Simply put, does our speech ease suffering or increase it, for ourselves or others?

The Buddha laid out standards for what is considered wise speech. Before saying something, it's suggested the speaker consider whether it is true, whether it is kind, whether this is the right time to say it, and whether the speaker is the right person to say it. And if the answer is not yes, then to be silent.

It seems to me that the time is here for those who are trying to break free from hate to make that clear. Not to engage in hateful speech, by responding to hate-filled rants in kind or by name-calling, but to disagree. Politely, maybe. Pointedly, certainly. But to make it clear that we don't stand with hate.

I read an essay, An Open Letter to a Guy at Work, in which a woman shares her private thoughts after a co-worker comments on the Brock Turner case, in which the former Stanford swimmer received a six-month sentence after being found guilty by a jury of raping an unconscious woman, who had been drinking. "Don't you agree the whole thing could have been avoided if she had just been more responsible?" the co-worker says. The essay ends, after detailing the reasons she disagrees, with, "No, I do not agree." But it's not clear whether she said that to the co-worker or whether her silence left the impression that maybe she did agree.

It is not kind to stay quiet when others make untruthful statements about groups of people. And if we know their remarks are untrue and unkind, this is the time to speak up.

No, I don't agree. I don't think transgender people are weird for wanting to use the bathroom. I don't think Muslims are dangerous. I don't agree with you.

Sometimes we cling to a point of view because no one has ever pointed out a different way of looking at things. No one has said they see it differently. Sometimes that crack in the wall of unanimity is what we need to break our hearts open, to let others in.

I heard a sports announcer, talking about the violence around the Euro Cup matches, say that we're sitting in the embers, and that feels true for more than the soccer world. Hate speech adds fuel to the fire, creates a spark that can become a conflagration. Saying nothing allows it smolder. Pour some truth on it and tamp down the flames.

There's a saying: Practice like your hair is on fire. It's meant to communicate urgency and the need to practice now, not put it off, to make use of this precious human life before impermanence takes over.

But now it's time to practice like your world is on fire.

The world needs you to douse the fires of hatred and delusion. Do it kindly, do it wisely, but do it while you can.

Flower thrower by Banksy

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Unbinding from opinions

So what are your thoughts on Trump's latest tweet? Hillary's emails? Bernie's chances? What about the kid who climbed into a gorilla exhibit at the zoo -- whose fault? The zoo? The parents? The kid? Muhammad Ali -- revered icon of empowerment or pathetic victim of aggression? Surely you have thoughts.

Opinions are like assholes, Detective Harry Callahan famously said. Everybody has one.

Even Buddhists, who have vowed to walk a middle way between attraction and aversion without falling into ignorance, have opinions. About political candidates, about animals, about food and movies and music.

There's nothing wrong with having opinions. But they become problematic -- and a cause of suffering -- when we treat them as something solid and unchanging, when we dismiss conflicting opinions without consideration simply because they do not agree with our opinions. And often without consideration for the people who hold those opinions, who may agree with us on most things except this one, overriding, all-important view. I've felt this energy so often in social media in this election cycle that I'm tempted to opt out until the election's over.

The Buddha talks about attachment to opinion in the Yoga Sutta, or the Bondage Sutta:

A person who doesn't see that opinion -- like all things -- stems from causes and conditions and is subject to impermanence will suffer, the Buddha says. The person who does not understand "the arising, the subsiding, the sweetness, the wretchedness, and the leaving behind of modes of opinion; who, with respect to opinion, is obsessed with passion for opinion, delight in opinion, affection for opinion, intoxication with opinion, thirst for opinion, fever for opinion, attachment to opinion, craving for opinion," this person is bound by opinion, he says.

Release from the bondage of opinion is possible, he says, by seeing the arising, the subsiding, the sweetness, the wretchedness, and the leaving behind of those thoughts.

In other words, by holding them more lightly. By opening up, rather than closing down. By knowing them as impermanent and subject to change -- which may come from reconsidering our opinions in a new light, if only we stay open to that.

An essential part of the Buddhist path is accessing wisdom, cultivating the discernment to know what is wise speech and wise action, to see when we're acting out of habit or cultural conditioning or fear -- and on a larger level, to see when institutions are taking actions that are unwise or harmful and to do what we can to counter that.

But that wisdom has to be balanced with compassion. We're all human. We're all just walking each other home -- even if we're carrying different things and in our bags and arguing about the best route to get there. What is "best" after all -- the fastest, the most scenic, the one with the fewest stops, the one with the straightest lines? Who decides best? And do they get to force others to take their route, whether they're wearing the right shoes for the terrain or want to get to the same place?

Maybe what is best for you is only second best or 84th best for someone else.

Maybe the best way now wasn't the best this morning. Or the last time you went that way.

Maybe your opinion has evolved over time. Maybe Leonardo is no longer your favorite Ninja Turtle. Maybe Ninja Turtles are no longer your favorite playthings. Maybe you used to think Pop Tarts were the food of the gods, and now they disgust you. It happens.

Allowing for the possibility that your opinions may change as causes and conditions change, as awareness changes, as more becomes known or seen, doesn't mean that you don't believe in them now.  It just means that you don't use them as a rock to clonk your enemies over the head with. Maybe you don't even see them as enemies, just as humans who see things differently. Which leaves open the possibility of being curious and exploring those differences instead of shutting them out.

Holding tightly to opinions can mean shutting out conflicting information or people. It closes you off. Holding them more lightly frees you from obsession with opinions, passion for opinions, delight in opinions, affection for opinions, intoxication with opinions, thirst for opinions, fever for opinions, attachment to opinions, craving for opinions.

This is the unbinding of the bondage of opinions. This is freedom.