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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 8 22 Nothing. Not a syllable. It’s like a biography of Winston Churchill that fails to mention a couple of stints he had as prime minister. How come the issue never gets mentioned? In the Northern tradition, there is an equally mysteri- ous anomaly. Immediately following his enlightenment, the Buddha’s inclination was not to teach. He saw that worldly attachment was so great and the subtlety of his real- ization was so refined that others simply would not understand. If compassion for other beings was his prime motiva- tion in developing the spiri- tual perfections for so many lifetimes—for “four incalculable periods and 100,000 eons,” according to the scriptures— why should he feel that there was no point in even trying? Very mysterious. One would imagine that such incongruities would lead people to investigate their own beliefs more closely, and to ponder whether the standard views of their own and other traditions were reliable. Unfortunately, it’s more often the case that such anomalous elements are ignored or dismissed, and one’s preferred version of reality re-established. The Trouble with Tribalism If we look into the roots of the conflict and ponder possible resolutions, we first encounter a question: What exactly is the problem? When reading texts extolling the virtues of the arahant and the bodhisattva, both appear to be noble aspirations. How wonderful that we can develop such purity and wis- dom! Clearly it is not the ideals themselves that are the root of any conflict; rather, the root of the problem is people— more specifically, the issue of tribalism. It’s the great “mine” field: through a misguided faithfulness to our origins—this is my team, my lineage—we co-opt the intellect to defend our group, often bending the facts and the philosophy for the sake of winning the argument. Whether it’s football teams, family feuds, or Buddhist lineages, the dynamics are identical: first, we seize on some features of the opposition to criticize; then we enter the laby- rinth of position-taking; finally, we miss the reality of what it was we were contesting in the first place. Even though the intent of an exchange might be very noble, the emotional tone permeating it can be deeply instinctual and aggressive, as well as territorial. We might observe the appropriate eti- quette and protocols, but nevertheless be taken over by the reptile brain. The real issue, then, is often not philosophy; it’s hurt feelings. What probably began as an amicable spiritual dis- cussion somehow evolved into a bitter rivalry a few centu- ries later. Critical comments were bandied back and forth and they degenerated into derogatory insults, until the various factions were stab- bing each other with verbal daggers, and each opposing group became stereotyped: Anyone who aspires to arahantship is a selfish nihilist; all those who take the bodhisattva vows are obviously heretical eternalists. Many spiritual traditions tell the tale of the blind men and the elephant. Isn’t it revealing that we rarely think of ourselves as one of the blind? We prefer to see ourselves as watching the sorry squabbling of the sightless. It’s humbling, though, to see how easily we’re pulled into this kind of de- luded certainty and position-taking based on our attach- ment to views and opinions. We’re so sure: “This is not an opinion, it’s a fact!” Even if the “fact” is 100 percent provable, if we use it as a weapon it becomes, as Ajahn Chah said, “Right in fact, but wrong in dhamma.” Sometimes it is devout faithfulness, rather than negativity, that generates such dualisms. Once, when Ajahn Chah was visiting England, a woman long con- nected to the Thai Forest tradition came to see him. She was very concerned: “I respect your wisdom immensely but I feel uncomfort- able studying and taking refuges and precepts with you; I feel I’m being unfaithful to my teacher, Ajahn Maha- Boowa.” Ajahn Chah replied, “I don’t see the problem. Ajahn Maha-Boowa and I are both disciples of the Buddha.” It is possible to explore these various teachings and tradi- tions in this spirit of nonpartisan openness and, hopefully, appreciate the landscape of the way of the Buddha with eyes that are “right in dhamma.” Through this kind of investi- gation, perhaps we can find ways to resolve these ancient conflicts. It is the sense of self that ultimately drives the tribalistic Buddhist politics that exist today. As long as self-view has not been penetrated, the mind will miss the middle way.