Precisely the problem?


On Speculative non-Buddhism the post On Being an Irrelevant Dick, has the following lines in response to some bruhaha going on somewhere between status quo capitalist Buddhists and some others:

We know that ideas such as “right speech,””right action,” “compassion,” “non-reactivity,” “non-judgmentalism,” and so forth, play a significant role in x-buddhist discourse. A committed x-buddhist is precisely a person who has internalized such values–made them his/her own, uses them as a guide to proper thought, emotion, and action. The x-buddhist has done so, moreover, in a way that renders such values “unconscious.”They engender real-world response that is reflexive, in the same way that a trained craftsmen reaches for the right tool without giving it any conscious thought. The thinking, the knowledge, of what constitutes “the right tool” has been internalized to the point of unconscious reflexivity.”

This sums up many of the problems with x-Buddhism in the American convert sangha, maybe even points towards the precise and paramount one, though I think Glenn is being far too generous in using the craftsman analogy. A zombie analogy would be more appropriate often. The superficial ingesting of words and behavior, unquestioning, unthinking, playing the “good” Buddhist role by parroting words and acting behaviors without letting any of it sink in or really disrupt one’s comfort bubble.

Consider the discussion at Sex in the Sangha . . . Again or Misogyny and Sexual Assault are Still Missing Links in Conversations about Sangha Scandals or about a hundred others.

Systemic. Institutional. We can round up and crucify, or name and shame, or wring our hands in moral horror, or whatever regarding all the bad apples we want but it won’t make much difference if the rot is in the barrel itself.

Institutions and systems are made up of processes. These processes get codified—more in the unwritten rules, rituals, codes of behavior, habits and hidden agendas (include shadows in that) by the laziness of participants than in what is actually written down if anything is written down at all. Laziness in that once comfortably ensconced in an institution, it’s pretty easy to hand off control and thought and critique to that institution and simply become a piece of the machine.

Philosopher of social science, Daniel Little has a new post Culture change within an organization on his Understanding Society blog. It has to do with the workplace but much of what he writes can be equally applied to any institution. Here are a few directly relevant pieces of that though the entire post is worth a read.

The daily workings of an organization depend on the activities and behavior of the people who make it up (and those with whom it interacts). People have habits, expectations, ways of perceiving social situations, and behavioral dispositions in a range of stylized circumstances. Their habitual modes of behavior may conform better or worse to the official rules and expectations of behavior in the performance of their roles…

Within a Fordist understanding of organizations, these conflicts between habits of behavior and the official expectations of the organization can be resolved through supervision: non-conformist behavior can be identified and penalized…

Organizations involving the productive activities of well educated specialists need to rely on a high level of self-motivation and self-direction on the part of its workers. Therefore modern organizations need to encourage high level contributions to the organization’s goals through means other than close supervision and a code of penalties and rewards. This means finding ways of aligning the personal values of the worker with the goals and processes of the organization. The organization needs to create an environment of development and work in which the individual worker wants to achieve the key goals of the organization — rather than disregarding those goals to pursue his/her own agenda in the workplace…

Some of that persuasive environment in a sick institution can include undermining individuals, coercion, guilt, enforcing conformity at all costs, punishing outliers, etc. This leads an individual to self-doubt and unmoors moral anchors making them far more pliable parts of the machine. It’s cult like behavior that leads to insecurity and increases dependence on the institution by the individual. It’s co-dependence all the way down.

“Oh. Oh. Oh. Am I doing Buddhist right? Am I performing correctly? Am I policing others’ performances enough with my passive aggressive bullshit? Someone is freaking out—should I take that as a cue to froth up into a moral panic? Please please please someone tell me what to do because thinking about it on my own is too fucking hard. I might have to make an actual decision without the help of my television or pod cast or elite sangha membership or blessed guru-ji with the gilded smile.”

OK that’s hyperbole, but that’s the kind of underlying current engendered in toxic institutional scenarios. Plenty of woe to those who would stand against the stream. But is it any better to go with that kind of flow which just goes nowhere, round and round like a whirlpool? I’m using those metaphors deliberately. Round and round recreating the samsaric, sanctifying it, enforcing it not even recognizing what the effort is forming and re-forming. Same old same old.

It seems to me that if Buddhist practice in those kinds of places doesn’t even serve to help someone at least recognize such blatantly obvious suffering and pain and trauma inducing stuff, there’s not much hope of realizing anything more subtle.

Enlightenment/nirvana/liberation/realization/whatever is your own responsibility. Nobody’s going to give it to you or tell you how to do it. It’s not in learning to act like some ego-projection of how a Buddhist should be, or a groupthink version of mass hypnosis or in increasingly recreating the cycle on increasingly smaller scales or in increasingly infinite detail.

It’s your own burden. Dharma can and does support you in the struggle with it but the problem is wrestled within. While the problem is an individual one in this way, it is also a collective problem of humanity. Individualism, especially as it’s sold to us in the consumerist milieu is at the heart of this paradox. The individual, conditioned and embedded, in the world, in the organization, in various structures like families, relationships, etc is not what we think it is. The whole ox herding cycle is about this sort of thing. We’ve got to find it and find out what it is before we can deal with it. The thing one wants to escape is the thing that has to be found first. I’ll get too mired in these metaphysics if I continue writing out this line of thought right now because I’m really tired, but wanted to make a short post about some of this stuff anyways.

The thing that sticks out for me is:

If somebody doesn’t even want to confront blatant wrong doing, or question what they are being fed, or even take a look in the mirror (actually and metaphorically), how are they going to confront the great matter of life and death?

9 comments on “Precisely the problem?

  1. “If somebody doesn’t even want to confront blatant wrong doing, or question what they are being fed, or even take a look in the mirror (actually and metaphorically), how are they going to confront the great matter of life and death?”

    Oh that’s wonderful. I wish I’d thought of it.

    I’m amazed, as I wrote to the SNB folks, that their whole thing with regard to x-Buddhists erupted contemporaneously with Arun’s Buddhist Geeks.

    That said, I do take issue with some of what SNB is saying here, and as stated elsewhere, the martial arts application applies.

    The discussion should not be is whether or not reflexivity should be undertaken with regards to right speech,””right action,” “compassion,” “non-reactivity,” “non-judgmentalism,” but rather, which action results with regard to blatant wrongdoing,

    Of course, my sangha’s really small, so I don’t see all this kind of stuff to which you refer.

    But one other thing, maybe it’s me. Isn’t society past codependency by now?

    Ah, probably not – and that word carries too much baggage I’m afraid. “Unaware collaborator” might be a better term.

    I have been really lucky in life.

  2. Ok I’m plagiarizing this for my Part Trois of the deconstruction of the Plum Village Lineage North American Dharma Teachers Sangha’s Conflict Resolution Guide! (I think the title of that tome is in itself worthy of analysis.) And no, it’s not hyperbole that what was intended to be a fierce questioning of motives and desires has become a side show of clowns and cowards.

  3. Pingback: the dog ate my zabuton: life koans we die by | 108zenbooks

  4. I am happy to find this, to see that others are also wrestling with these issues.
    One point: “It seems to me that if Buddhist practice in those kinds of places doesn’t even serve to help someone at least recognize such blatantly obvious suffering and pain and trauma inducing stuff, there’s not much hope of realizing anything more subtle.”
    This seems like it should be true, but in my experience (rise and fall of the Rajnessh sannyas community in Poona then Oregon; rise and fall Genpo Merzel Big Mind, and lesser involvement in a few other sanghas; ran into various shards of the Trungpa Rinpoche/Ozel Tenzin super-nova), it is not that simple.
    The kind of rot you identify does eventually destroy the sangha, but until the infection breaks out into the open (usually over something moralicious that is much less severe an issue than what has been denied all along), a sangha and a teacher are capable of actually performing much good, really helping some people sort through certain things, while at the same time being rotten in other ways.
    I think that this capacity to help on the one hand while impeding on the other reflects the social structure in which the community is embedded. That is a question that deserves consideration in its own right.

    On the other hand, for those individuals who see the rot before the sangha as a whole is forced to see it, the ability of the teacher/sangha to directly help does cease. It is a very painful position to be in and if worked with sincerely, it is an opportunity for great learning despite the teacher/sangha. It is also a position that makes it almost impossible to be completely graceful with how one handles things. Each time, I definitely got self-righteous and dumped things on people that they did not deserve. If this is you, do cut yourself some slack. As I said, being the one who sees that the emperor has no clothes is quite difficult.

  5. Your closing question, reveals the way. How is any confrontational approach not itself ‘blatant wrong doing’? Right action is not a matter of engage/disengage. There is no compassion without equanimity, only the sort of altruistic ‘good Buddhist’ role playing you address above. A second best/second hand reinterpretation of the Eightfold Path – for those whose path still appears to be leading them somewhere. Relativism enrobed in literalism (aka – delusion), that easily descends into defensive dogma. All paths share these pitfalls (aka – pointers). ‘Right effort’ is what raises the Sun each day. Indeed, no one can show you how to realize this.

  6. I can see cases where confrontation — even use of force — is not only not “blatant wrong doing”, but the only right course of action.

    That said, the problem with theoretical examples is they are always distinct from the exact set of dependent circumstances any person is apt to find themselves confronting. The real nitty gritty is in understanding that specific case, and all the dependent factors. Which is impossible, though we might get somewhere by trying. Likewise, trying to rely on abstract understandings might guide us, but probably does not apply too much either. If our practice is mature and stable, I think it is possible to engage samsara in such a way as to spontaneously perform the right actions at that place and time and situation. At least I hope so.

    Thus I would propose where the rubber meets the road so to speak is in our unique karmic situation — if someone is struggling with a particular thing, there is a reason. How that person copes with that particular struggle may be completely different than how another person copes with a very similar struggle, and I think right action in one circumstance may not necessarily be right action in another; in fact the mere question may not apply at all because it is literally impossible to see all the causes and effects that go into a given snapshot of life. If we have an ethical dilemma in our lives, I feel most strongly it is important to resolve it then and there because I can see no other reason for the dilemma to exist. The resolution, like the circumstances of the dilemma (seen and unseen, known and unknown), appear to my mind at least, to be unique and irreproducible.

    It doesn’t mean I think it is futile to ponder hypothetics or moral questions in the abstract, but the decision a police officer (to use hypothetics) makes to decide whether or not to kill someone who is armed and going to kill others is going to be a singular event, even though similar events may occur in similar ways all the time. The actual karmic effects are not exactly predictable nor even fully knowable, and not necessarily applicable from one set of ethical circumstances to another. How can we possibly know everything?

    Non-action to prevent harm is indistinguishable from causing harm in my view, but again there are times when we don’t know, can’t know, and must either act or not act, and if we act there are infinite ways to act or not act with infinite possible repercussions. It is very difficult to be human.

  7. Another way to look at this, and I hope this gives others hope in dealing with the disppointments and cruelties of life: if our practice is based on the realization that life has meaning and there is some “higher” truth, even the bad stuff has meaning, and even our mistakes have value. If it is not, no amount of practice will mean anything, because the outcome is simply nihilism. No one can make this choice for us.

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