The Virtue Olympics and Other Approaches to Conversation

“What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?”

(quote attributed to the Buddha)*

There are a couple of posts I’ve read recently on similar themes that have brought up some thoughts. On Uku’s blog Zen The Possible Way he wrote  You Can’t Be a Saint , Nathan of Dangerous Harvests wrote Buddhism Doesn’t Make You Nicer and Passive-Aggressive Buddhist Moralists , Gniz on Reblogging Brad Warner wrote two posts Meditation Won’t Make You a Nicer Person and Bullshit Moralizing in Zen Culture. There is plenty of discussion in the comments on all these posts.

The origins of many of the thoughts in these posts were triggered by an ongoing very public dispute between some of Nishijima Roshi’s students. This dispute is most public in the comments section of numerous posts on Brad Warner’s blog Hardcore Zen. I have no wish to bring the particulars of those issues into this post but only mention them as the genesis point for much more consideration of related issues, particularly ethical issues by both participants and bystanders.

I really appreciate the openness of all this discussion including that on Brad’s blog. Sometimes it’s gotten a little loud and sometimes it’s gone off the rails but it provides an excellent opportunity to consider the value of dialogue in this kind of forum. Certainly there have been a wide variety of opinions. There are the moralizers who seek to quash any discussion of anything that isn’t all “love and light” based on criteria they don’t bother to outline beyond citing “Right Speech” and there are those who seek to stoke up the flames with cutting ad hominum remarks that don’t relate to any of the issues and add nothing to clarify matters. But for the most part the participants, directly involved or not, seem to be seeking some kind of understanding of the situation. And for the most part are seeking it through this very large, very open conversation.

A while back I wrote a post Are You Ready for Real Conversation? and in that post I made the point that conversation brings resolution.  Whether resolution will be found for some of the participants is an open question. Particularly if there is  insistence that their perspective is the only one that is correct and all others are to be shouted down unheard and unconsidered. But comparing viewpoints, bringing outside experience and observations to a situation and further discussing and debating various positions regarding the debate itself is a healthy approach in my estimation.

There are a lot of options available when conflict emerges.

We can dismiss all other positions except our own. This is the easiest option because thinking is not required.

We can attempt to ignore the situation and stifle any input we may have. This is doing a disservice to ourselves if we have some stake in the outcome or if we are affected by a situation. And by doing this a lot we are putting obstacles in our own way to exploring what is happening with regard to our reaction to a situation. When we try to forcefully ignore some event we are also often placed in the position of having to forcefully ignore our own reactions to said event. This kind of repression is detrimental in numerous ways. Ultimately we can ignore what others do but we cannot ignore ourselves without serious problems emerging somewhere down the line.

We can attempt to get others to stifle their opinions. In effect closing down any discourse on subjects that may be deeply important to those who are having the dialogue.  Recently, regarding a completely unrelated controversy a well known teacher wrote something like the following. I am paraphrasing as I don’t want to single this person out and it is just a typical example of this approach.

Can we please delay controversial conversations. There are hungry people to be fed. And grieving to be comforted.

That’s all well and good, even sounds rather noble,  but repression of controversy, “making nice”, tends to send the conversation underground. Often so much so that it appears again in resentful, passive-aggressive ways. And it is completely impractical. To sideline any conversations that may have some element of controversy or conflict in them until all the hungry people are fed would be to sideline the majority of necessary conversations. It would even sideline the conversation as to how this is to be accomplished. It is utterly self defeating. Nothing can be done if all involved fear the possibility of conflict. It leads only to stagnation and inertia.

We can consider our initial response rationally after having listened thoroughly to others involved. Then respond when appropriate by well reasoned statements. This is kind of idealistic as it misses the very relevant emotional content that is involved.

We can laugh off any points made by anyone and attempt to “lighten up” the situation. This is disrespectful to the other participants since they may have discussed in good faith and may not appreciate or may even be hurt by such a dismissal of their concerns.

We can scream irrationally until all the emotional content of our opinion is emptied. This purge may feel good for a while but until the actual issue is approached and dealt with it will be repeated endlessly.

We can all try for a place on the podium of the Virtue Olympics and place our self-righteous opinion above all others, but few of us will make it to the medals on a regular basis. We can cite saints and scholars and pretend we are emulating them. Though it’s difficult to construct a reasonable dialogue while carrying 5 kilos of sutra books in each hand and jumping up and down until the point of exhaustion is reached. It will render all involved too tired to carry on for long.

We can try to distance ourselves from any and all controversy. We can relegate our present circumstances to the back burner and think that there is something better elsewhere. This would be the grass is greener approach. On the blog Ariel Pork, the post entitled Wall Jumping brings up an interesting perspective. The author writes:

I often think about Siddhartha and his decision to jump over the palace wall, leaving Yashodhara his wife, his son Rahula, and all of his responsibilities, the palace- the good with the bad…So why don’t I do it when I know the Buddha did it? Because, the Buddha wasn’t the Buddha yet. He was a way-seeker named Gautama and he went through a lot of extremes before finding the middle way. And I believe he did that for us, so we don’t have to jump the wall; we actually have to do something harder…at some point, and the earlier the better, we have to find contentment in just the practice- not the place, not the names, not the different colored kesa and rakusu draped on human shoulders….I don’t jump the wall because I know it’s only my ego that wants to jump. It sounds better and more grand to become a monk than all of this: to work on yourself…maybe it’s a unique opportunity to take care of something, something that’s born and needs attention until it grows up.

Throughout conversations there are points where we need to examine our contributions and perspectives. Sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we don’t have all the necessary information.  When dialogues get heated sometimes an appropriate question is more useful than a continued diatribe. I found a little article about this on a writer’s website that gives further ways to handle this approach. Asking Questions vs Confrontation

This is not to say that all conversations can or should continue either. There comes a point sometimes where further dialogue is futile. One can hopefully recognize when that point is reached as well and just walk away from further engagement.  This can be incredibly freeing.

There is no one way to handle all controversial conversations. At times complete engagement is important and at other times backing off to some degree and reassessing is important. There is something to be said for self-monitoring in every interaction and asking tough questions such as:

Why am I doing this?

Am I really involved in this situation?

If so how and to what intensity?

Have I listened to and understood the other participants?

Do I have something somewhat constructive to contribute?

Am I trying to hijack this conversation for my own ends?

How will this utterance be received by the majority of the participants?

If it will be poorly received should it be said anyway?

There are no doubt a host of other questions that could be asked. It is not necessary to go too far with them as one could become endlessly mired. The philosopher Alain de Botton said:

If we let the true impact of events resonate, we’d need hours to process minutes.

Taking a breather for a few minutes before we continue our onrush can enlarge perspective to some degree and if one is attempting to discover the roots of a situation or solve problems creatively this broader perspective can bring a great deal more to any resolution.

*Can’t find an exact citation of the attributed quote at the beginning of this post. Maybe it’s Another Fake Buddha Quote Spotted in the Wild. I’ve done some research and all I can come up with is that it may be a paraphrase or reference to the sutta  Mettagu-manava-puccha: Mettagu’s Questions which contains the words:

How do the prudent cross over the flood of birth & aging, lamentation & sorrow? Please, sage, declare this to me as this Dhamma has been known by you.


One comment on “The Virtue Olympics and Other Approaches to Conversation

  1. “Can we please delay controversial conversations?” What’s interesting to me is that this question and the “noble” actions following it create a curious split. Namely, that taking care of the conversation currently at hand is less important than attending to nameless suffering people out there. This, I think, is a large part of the problem – failing to take care of what is going on right in front of us, out of a desire to be doing something grander, less messy, less difficult.

    I don’t think there is any one “solution” to taking care of controversial conversations like the Jundo/Warner/Nishijima thing. Sometimes, it might be best for everyone to shut up and sit down, but other times, that’s exactly the wrong approach.

    One thing I noticed was that both on Brad’s blog, and on Treeleaf, there eventually were some clear and honest comments made by both Brad and Jundo – and even if the myriad of issues being raised, which I don’t have an interest in following that closely haven’t been resolved, at least people were able to see some stepping back and public, personal reflection from two teachers who have large followings.

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