Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Learning the Mind of Ahimsa

Lately I’ve been feeling guilty because of the recent death of a temple volunteer who was ill for several months. I won’t go into the details, but about a year ago that person heard about my criticism of him and he confronted me about it. I felt as resident minister I should be concerned about the use of the altar area and supplies and about newcomers being steered away from participating in our temple. But I realize my problem is I come off sounding harsh, condemning the whole person for the few things he did that rubbed me the wrong way. Now that the person had died, I can imagine all the people saying, “How could you be so mean to someone who was so gentle and kind?”

Rev. Gyoko Saito is my main role model for learning how to be more of a listener and less of a talker – to be the grateful receiver of wisdom from others rather than the pushy propagator. But I need to learn more about how to have the “heart/mind of embracing all” even when those you are confronted with those who seem to be working at cross purposes to you, those whose presentation of Buddhism seems worlds away from the nembutsu teachings, or even those whose words seem totally at odds with the Buddha’s basic teachings though they wear the title and robes of spiritual authority.

It’s something I need to learn for any gathering under the umbrella of Buddhist brotherhood. For the upcoming Catholic-Buddhist dialogue in Rome in June, I can see where for most of the Buddhist delegates it’s easier for us to relate to the Pope than to each other. At base, almost all Buddhists recognize that Shakyamuni taught in different ways to different people, so we accept the existence of a wide diversity of sects. “You do what works for you and I’ll do what works for me.” The tricky part is analyzing why your way doesn’t work for me without denigrating you and your presentation.

Even if someone appears to me to be a big blowhard, using the banner of Buddhism to glorify his/her self, I need that mind of forgiveness and compassion (“fellow-feeling” – as Shinran called himself a “slanderer of the Dharma” for using the role of Buddhist teacher to satisfy his ego). I’m thinking the word to keep in mind is ahimsa, usually translated as “non-violence.” Even if I find much to criticize, there should be no ill-will towards that person and what they do, no wish for harm to come to them. How does one maintain that mind while engaging in a critique of someone’s conduct and philosophy?

Of course all over the internet we are bombarded with loud condemnation and cruel insults thrown by people with differing views. During the Vietnam War era, I remember seeing all the harsh caricatures of President Lyndon Johnson and wondering how people who claim to be peace activists can be so disrespectful, treating Johnson and other leaders as less than human, deserving to be beat up and even executed. That is the mind-set I need so much to overcome.

[from Gesthsemani Archives, Merton at the East/West Conference in Thailand 1968]
For our weekly study group as part of the topic of “renunciation,” we will begin a discussion of the life and writings of Thomas Merton. There’s not enough time for me to delve very deeply into all of Merton’s major works, but so far in what I’m reading (primarily Mystics and Zen Masters and articles in A Thomas Merton Reader) I’m finding him as someone to emulate. In another book I’m reading (Thomas Merton: Monk and Artist by Victor Kramer), Merton is described as someone who started off sharply critical of the world in his early writings, but as he matured, he demonstrated a deep compassion towards those who did things he found disturbing, such as the officials who sent a young refugee back to her country to suffer certain punishment.

It’s in his appreciation of philosophies far removed from his strict Catholic milieu (as a Cistercian “Trappist” monk) where he shows an attitude of respect and a willingness to learn the details of a fellow human being’s way of spirituality. I am hoping by reading his brilliant writings that my closed mind can be cracked open a bit and I can strive for more understanding and less condemnation of others’ seemingly “alien” ways. Maybe to become more “kind and gentle” will make me a less interesting blog writer, but Merton certainly shows one can skillfully use words to foster mutual understanding and rally people to activism based in thoughtfulness, rather than bile.

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